Abbott Govt Turns its Back on Public Schools and Disadvantaged Students

Thursday May 15, 2014

The Federal Budget is a disaster for public education in Australia. It has killed off the Gonski school funding increases for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Public schools stand to over $6 billion as a result. The unity ticket on school funding promised by Abbott and Pyne before the election has been completely shredded.

State governments are unlikely to make up the loss and may not even meet their own commitments to increase funding, in which case the loss to government schools will be even bigger. The huge funding loss reduces the prospect of Australia improving its school results and reducing the large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students.

Under Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement (NPSI), Federal Government funding for schools was expected to increase by $10.3 billion (excluding indexation for rising costs) over the six years to 2018-19, with $2.8 billion committed to the first four years. This left $7.5 billion to be delivered in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

This has been rejected by the Federal Government. From 2018, increases in Federal funding for schools will be limited to increases in the consumer price index (CPI), with adjustments for student enrolments.

Public schools will bear the vast part of the loss. Under the NPSI, public schools would have received 83 per cent of the overall increase and would have amounted to $6.2 billion over 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Moreover, tying future funding increases to the CPI is likely to mean a real cut in funding. The CPI is not a good measure of rising costs in education because it reflects productivity increases in the rest of the economy. The wage price index for public education and training is a better measure of costs in schools and it has increased by much more than the CPI in the past. Funding increases based on the CPI will not match future cost increases and will compound the funding shortfall facing public schools.

The Federal Government says it is shifting responsibility for school education back to the states, but it is very unlikely that they will make up the loss. The future of state and territory government funding for public schools is itself in question, especially as the Federal Government has released them from their commitments under the NPSI to increase their funding.

The Abbott Government has turned its back on public schools and disadvantaged students. This is not really surprising given that the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has repeatedly said that Australia does not have an equity problem in education.

Without the Gonski funding increases, Australia has little prospect of increasing student outcomes or reducing the huge learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Disadvantaged students are two to three years behind their advantaged peers in reading, numeracy and science and three-quarters of them attend public schools. These schools are massively under-resourced for the task they face. The Abbott Government has ensured that they will continue to struggle.

As the Greens spokesperson on education, Senator Penny Wright, said “The Coalition has abandoned every child, every parent, every teacher and every school, but none more so than those in greatest need”.

It is not without irony that almost to the day that the Government killed off funding increases for disadvantaged students a major research study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that increasing funding for disadvantaged students has large long-lasting benefits.

The study found that a 20 per cent increase in per student funding for children from poor families leads an increase of about one extra year spent in school, a 25 per cent increase in average earnings and a 20 percentage-point in the annual incidence of adult poverty. So much for the idea that money doesn’t matter in education!

Trevor Cobbold

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