It is widely agreed that a new approach to school funding is needed. The Federal Minister for Education says that the SES funding model for private schools has “reached its use-by-date”. Even the major private school lobbies concede that it has had its day, although they still want to retain the privileged funding it gives them.
Save Our Schools has recommended to the Gonski School Funding Review a new model which integrates funding for government and private schools from both federal and state/territory governments.
The Gonski review has stated that its focus is to improve equity in education and that “equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions”.
The SOS model sets a dual equity goal: all students should receive an adequate education which means completion of Year 12 or its equivalent; and low income, Indigenous and remote area students should achieve similar results to high income students.
The model has three main features: a community resource standard, baseline funding, and equity funding.
A community resource standard should enable all government and private schools not faced with significant disadvantage to achieve an adequate education. It should enable government schools to meet their social obligations of free and universal access in all locations, non-exclusionary enrolment policies and a comprehensive secular curriculum to Year 12. These obligations provide a standard against which to assess the social role of private schools.
For immediate purposes, the community standard should be set as the resources currently available to high socio-economic status (SES) government schools where a very high proportion of students achieve an adequate education. An expert task force should be established to develop a community resource standard for the longer term.
Baseline funding should ensure that all government and private schools meet the community standard. Baseline funding for government schools should be fixed at the community standard because government schools are free and have few other resources.
Baseline funding for private schools should fill the gap between the community standard and funding from fees and donations. No private school should operate with fewer resources than the community standard.
However, baseline funding should be conditional on the social role of eligible private schools. The full difference between private-sourced funding and the community standard would be provided to private schools that meet similar social obligations as government schools.
Schools that adopt discriminatory enrolment policies or provide less than a comprehensive curriculum would not receive their entire eligible baseline funding. For example, schools which select students on the basis of ability, income, or religion would not be entitled to the full baseline funding for which they are eligible. Neither would schools which fail to provide a comprehensive curriculum which includes teaching evolution instead of creationism in science, adequate sex education and vocational education.
Private schools which discriminate against some students or deny access to a comprehensive curriculum may therefore have less than the community standard. They would face three options: increase their fees to cover the gap; adopt non-discriminatory enrolment and curriculum policies; or have their registration annulled because they do not meet the community resource standard.
Private schools whose private-sourced income exceeds the community standard would not be eligible for baseline funding. Public funding should not be provided to schools with private resources above the community standard because it gives more privileged students additional advantages over the less privileged. This is inconsistent with the Gonski panel’s goal of improving equity in education outcomes.
The third feature of the SOS model is equity funding for eligible students in both government and private schools. There is no case to discriminate between school sectors in additional funding for these students.
All students not making expected progress should be supported to achieve an adequate education wherever they are enrolled. Low SES, Indigenous and remote area students in either sector should be supported to achieve similar results to high SES students. Supplementary funding should also be provided to students with disabilities in both sectors.
Different funding levels will be required for students with different background characteristics as their average results differ. The current weightings are about 1.2 or 1.3, whereas research studies show that weightings up to 2.0 or more are necessary to provide an adequate education to low SES and minority students.
The funding weighting should also be higher for schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students. These schools face additional challenges. Studies show that a student attending a low SES school is low is likely to have lower outcomes than a student from a similar background attending a high SES school.
The model will require new institutional arrangements such as the establishment of a federal schools commission to co-ordinate school funding. It will also require a reasonable phase-in period to allow schools time to adjust to the new arrangements.
Overall, the model provides much greater emphasis on equity in funding government and private schools than current approaches. This is entirely consistent with the focus of the Gonski review.
Dr. Ian Morgan
This is a slightly edited version of this article was published in the Canberra Times on 6 May 2011.