Good policy, not base politics, should decide school funding
A year ago, in a moment of optimism, I expressed the hope that we were about to declare an end to the so-called school funding war.
My optimism was based on the passage by parliament of the Australian Government’s education bill, which enacted what’s commonly called the Gonski 2.0 funding reforms.
While the result was not perfect and not all Independent schools benefited, my view was that it was, overall, a good result for Independent education and for Australian education more broadly. This was a view widely shared by commentators.
As it turned out, I spoke too soon. Instead, a new and unlikely front opened in the funding war – and this time those making the most noise weren’t the old ideological forces who oppose any government funding to non-government schools.
Over the past 12 months we’ve seen an unseemly assault on Independent schools, launched from an unexpected quarter – the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria. It was unexpected, in that Catholic educators pioneered efforts that have ensured that support for non-government schools is now an entrenched feature of the Australian education system.
While its real target was the government’s funding model, the commission took aim at Independent schools with language that was intemperate at best and abusive at worst. We know these tactics have unsettled decent people involved in Catholic education who fear the collegiate spirit that has existed between Independent and Catholic schools has now been jeopardised.
It has involved the selective use of data deliberately designed to divide the two non-government education sectors. It has also involved a degree of mischief making in its transparent efforts to create divisions between widely diverse Independent schools.
This campaign took place in the context of a review the government initiated as part of last year’s funding reforms. The review, by the National School Resourcing Board, examined how the capacity of parents to contribute to the running of a non-government school is calculated. Up till now, this has been done by looking at the socioeconomic makeup of the areas where parents live.
The board concluded its review last month and forwarded its recommendations to the Australian Government, which now has to decide what, if any, should be implemented.
Its key recommendation is that a school community’s capacity to contribute should be based on the tax returns of families that send their children to non-government schools.
The board says this will lead to a ‘relatively small reduction in funding for the Independent sector and a comparable increase for the Catholic sector’.
While this might sound reassuring, it leaves unanswered crucial questions about the impact at the individual school level. While some schools might be able to adjust to a shift in funding, for others even a small reduction can be disruptive.
That’s just one of the issues we’ll be looking at closely in coming weeks.
The Australian Government has yet to respond to the report and has promised to consult all school sectors as it considers its policy plans.
In that consultation, we’ll be stressing to the government that implementing the key recommendation raises some basic and practical questions.
We will want to ensure that a funding system based on tax returns is subjected to rigorous assessment, testing and validation – before it is introduced. This includes the government providing, before it commits to any new model, a clear picture of what it would mean for every Independent school.
Pending introduction of any new model, the current model should be retained in the interim, with transition arrangements to ensure parents and schools are not subjected to disruptive uncertainty, which will have a negative impact on students.
Parents will want firm guarantees – not vague official words of reassurance – that their private tax details are protected from intrusion by government officials.
We will want clear evidence that the funding model is consistent, transparent and matches the needs of students, and does not unfairly favour the administrators of one school sector, over the needs of students in Independent schools.
The board appears to have conducted its review with an open mind, rather then working towards a predetermined outcome designed to appease noisy critics.
Its report is now the subject of political calculations, in a pre-election atmosphere in which we can’t assume good policy in the interests of students in all schools will necessarily prevail. Even so, good policy is what we will be arguing for.
Despite the regrettable experience of the past year, our hope is that this political process does not lead to a new outbreak of ill-judged vitriol that risks bringing all non-government schools into disrepute.