What is the point of taxpayer funding of private schools?

Mar 17, 2022
Geoffrey Handbury Science and Tech Hub, Melbourne Grammar School
Ever-increasing spending on private schools is one big reason why so many public schools remain under-resourced. Image: Flickr

The growth in private schooling has long been accompanied by declining overall levels of student achievement, hence the ‘why’ question is long overdue.

A decade ago, during the Gonski review of school funding, the economists Chris Ryan and Luke Sibieta wrote that ‘no government, at either the state or Commonwealth level, has ever been explicit about what the continuing funding for private schooling is now meant to achieve.’

Consequently, they recommended that ‘one area where the [Gonski] report could make a useful contribution to public debate will be if it can set out a coherent, contemporary rationale for the public funding of private schools in Australia’.

The truth of their argument was self-evident. If we don’t know why we are doing something, we can’t make smart decisions about when to do it. And we can’t evaluate whether it’s working. And yet the Gonski report, notwithstanding its virtues, failed to heed this critical point, allowing the absence of clarity and coherence to remain unaddressed. The purpose of taxpayer funding of private schools was sometimes assumed but never comprehensively examined or clearly articulated.

Today, Australian governments spend $18 billion a year on private schools and, still, no government, at either state or Commonwealth level, has clearly stated the goal of this very substantial outlay. No official statement has turned up in the places it might be expected, such as the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration signed by all education ministers in 2019. The resulting incoherence can be seen in the mismatch between the arguments which proponents regularly roll out for ever-increasing subsidies for private schools and their actual impact.

Exhibit A is the claim that state aid saves taxpayer dollars, the argument that has dominated debate about school funding since the 1960s. It no longer adds up. When David Gonski and his colleagues were conducting their review a decade ago, they visited non-government schools from Bendigo to Perth which received more taxpayer funding than nearby (and more disadvantaged) public schools. Today, one in three private schools receive more taxpayer funding than at least half of comparable public schools. That doesn’t save taxpayers anything. Nor does taxpayer support to high-fee schools where parents would clearly pay out of their own pockets anyway, even in the absence of any public subsidy. While the ‘taxpayer savings’ argument still plays a vital rhetorical role in political debate, it has become increasingly unmoored from the evidence. That’s the problem when there is no clear statement of the purpose of public expenditure, or rigorous evaluation of whether the purpose is being achieved.

The same applies for the argument that taxpayer funding reduces fees and increases choice. When Howard Government education minister, David Kemp, presided over a massive increase in expenditure to private schools he claimed that it would make choice in schooling ‘a reality for working-class Australian families’. But continuous fee increases over the last two decades, far in excess of the growth in teachers’ wages or other costs faced by schools, and only briefly interrupted by the pandemic, have made a mockery of such claims. The reality is that the poor – religious or otherwise overwhelmingly attend public schools. The complete failure of Howard and Kemp’s policy to achieve its ostensible objective remains wholly unaccounted for.

It’s argued that private schools generate competition in the school marketplace, in turn improving school performance across the board. It’s another argument with little to show for itself. More and more of this kind of competition has been accompanied by an inexorable decline in student achievement. The most recent research findings confirm that there is little or no difference in student test results between school sectors once the social background of students is accounted for. What, then, is all the public expenditure on private schools aimed at achieving?

While the purpose of funding remains unclear, it is a massive program of public expenditure with a profound impact on our country’s schools. Ever-increasing spending on private schools is one big reason why so many public schools remain under-resourced. While private schools are thousands of dollars ahead of public schools in total per student funding, current trends suggest it will be 2030 before most public schools reach even 90 per cent of Gonski’s schooling resource standard.

But the most pernicious impact of government spending on private schools is to give them a huge advantage in attracting new enrolments. Because they have more resources, private schools pull in students from nearby public schools, from the families who can afford the ever-increasing fees, leaving local public schools with very high concentrations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And as the Gonski report convincingly demonstrated ten years ago, and as research findings have continually confirmed, concentrating disadvantaged kids together like this is profoundly harmful to learning, opportunity and achievement. “Research demonstrates that concentrations of disadvantage at the school level accentuate underperformance,” the report recorded. “Concentrations of disadvantage have been demonstrated not only to impact on student performance, but also to impact on teacher morale and community alienation from the school, and result in difficulties in attracting and retaining good teachers and students.”

This surely isn’t the intention of government policies. But that’s the problem when the purpose of public spending is not articulated in a comprehensive and detailed way, or accompanied by robust evaluation. Unintended side effects set in, and the original goal is slowly forgotten. Australia must urgently revisit the question of how we can improve the opportunities our schools provide for all young Australians. A clear, contemporary and coherent rationale for spending on private schools would be a good place to start.

Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor are the authors of Waiting for Gonski: How Australia failed its schools published by UNSW Press.

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