The Turnbull Government promised to eliminate all special deals for private schools under its Gonski 2.0 funding plan. However, new data released through Senate Estimates reveal that the $58 million adjustment fund for ACT private schools announced last year is the mother of all special deals.
It is the mother of all special deals for several reasons. It will increase the already massive over-funding of ACT private schools to $73 million in 2018, postpone indefinitely reductions in over-funding of Catholic schools and delay reductions in over-funding of independent schools. All private schools, whatever their circumstances, will get adjustment assistance instead of the handful indicated by the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, last year. This includes several of the wealthiest and most advantaged private schools in Canberra. Astonishingly, several schools will get additional funding to adjust to higher levels of funding. It is one of the most extravagant special funding deals for a small group of private schools ever.
As the Minister acknowledged last year, ACT Catholic and independent schools are massively over-funded compared to their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) entitlement. Catholic systemic schools and independent schools are currently funded by the Commonwealth and ACT governments at 139% and 138% respectively of their SRS. The target rates under the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 funding plan are 80% of the SRS funded by the Commonwealth and 20% funded by state and territory governments.
Catholic systemic schools are currently funded at 116% of their SRS by the Commonwealth and at 22% of their SRS by the ACT Government. Independent schools are funded at 104% of their SRS by the Commonwealth and 38% of their SRS by the ACT Government. This amounts to millions in over-funding.
In 2018 Catholic systemic schools will be over-funded by $38.6 million, including $36.2 million by the Commonwealth. Independent schools will be over-funded by $31.3 million, including $20.5 million by the Commonwealth. Just eight schools – Brindabella Christian, Burgmann, Canberra Girls’ Grammar, Canberra Grammar, Daramalan, Marist, Orana and Radford – will be over-funded by $30.6 million, including $20.8 million by the Commonwealth. Total over-funding amounts to $69.9 million, including $56.7 million by the Commonwealth.
Commonwealth over-funding of private schools was to be reduced progressively to zero by 2027 as part of Gonski 2.0. The Minister for Education made a big thing of this. He especially highlighted the existing unique special deal for ACT private schools as unjustified and said it would be removed.
However, the Government quickly back-flipped on its commitment and introduced a new special deal worth $58 million, ostensibly to ease their adjustment to lower levels of funding over the next ten years. The special deal provides an additional $36.1 million for Catholic schools to 2027 and $21.7 million for Independent schools to 2021.
The new special deal will increase Commonwealth over-funding for ACT private schools to $72.7 million in 2018, with $44 million for Catholic schools and $28.7 million for independent schools. It extends the massive Catholic over-funding for the next ten years by a sleight of hand. Instead of their funding being reduced by an average of $3.6 million a year, it will be maintained by so-called adjustment assistance averaging $3.6 million a year. Their cumulative Commonwealth over-funding to 2027 will amount to $362 million.
Over-funding of several highly advantaged independent schools will increase in 2018: by 124% for Canberra Grammar, 53% for Radford and 24-29% for Daramalan, Marist and Burgmann. They are high SES schools.
An extraordinary feature of the special deal is that nine independent schools whose funding was projected to increase under the original plan will also receive adjustment assistance, including Canberra Girls’ Grammar and Canberra Grammar – two of the wealthiest schools in Canberra; that is, they will receive additional funding to adjust to higher levels of funding. It is truly an amazing deal.
The Government justifies the adjustment assistance to help “vulnerable” schools, such as those with a high proportion of students with disabilities or other disadvantaged students, to adjust to the target rate of 80% of their SRS. Why schools such as Canberra Grammar and Radford can be considered as vulnerable with 85 and 83% of their students in the top socio-educational advantage quartile and none in the bottom quartile is mystifying.
There is no case for adjustment funding to assist ACT private schools transition to reductions in their over-funding. They are all highly advantaged schools serving well-off families and have very few low income, indigenous or disability students. Several are high fee schools. They cannot be considered as vulnerable under the Government’s own criteria. The ten-year period to remove over-funding is generous enough without extra adjustment funding.
The special deal for ACT private schools is a stunning reversal of the Government’s commitment to end all special deals for private schools and specifically for ACT private schools. It also contradicts the Minister’s statement that adjustment assistance would apply only to a handful of schools. Instead, it applies to all independent schools and the Catholic system, even those that were already due to receive funding increases in the future.
The special deal can only be seen as a political fix for the Turnbull Government in the face of a concerted campaign by private school organisations to retain their privileged over-funding, the threat of a Government backbench revolt and political opportunism by the Labor Party in supporting continued over-funding of Catholic schools.
Labor MP Gai Brodtmann called the proposed cuts to Catholic schools “outrageous”. What is outrageous is that hundreds of millions of dollars will be wasted on over-funding private schools in Canberra over the next ten years.
Labor’s opposition to reducing over-funding is unconscionable. Labor cannot claim to support equity in schooling while simultaneously supporting over-funding of private schools that primarily serve the wealthiest families in the ACT. It should unconditionally support the principle of eliminating all over-funding of private schools.
While the Commonwealth Government is the major source of over-funding of ACT private schools, the ACT Government also provides significant over-funding to both Catholic and independent schools. There is no case for this. The ACT Government should progressively reduce its over-funding of private schools over the next five years.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor, Save Our Schools (http://www.saveourschools.com.au) . This is a summary of a new Education Policy Brief published by Save Our Schools.