In an outrageous move, the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, has threatened to cut funding to public schools if Gonski 2.0 is not passed by the Senate. The threat covers public schools in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory while private schools in these states will be guaranteed their funding.
The Minister issued his threat in a podcast for The Guardian newspaper last week. The threat is also made in the submission by the Commonwealth Department of Education to the Senate Committee inquiry on Gonski 2.0.
In the podcast, Birmingham said that the Government is not bound by the Education Act to increase funding for schools in all states. This is because the provision in the Education Act for annual increases of at least 4.7% in funding for schools that are below the Schooling Resource Standard only applies to the so-called participating states and authorities. These are the governments that signed the agreements with the Commonwealth under Gonski 1.0 – namely, New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT.
Public schools in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are not regarded as participating schools under the Act because their governments did not sign or fully complete agreements with the Commonwealth Government before the 2013 election. They are currently funded on the same basis as those in the participating states. However, this is at the Minister’s discretion and Birmingham has made it clear that he is prepared to hold their funding to ransom on condition that Gonski 2.0 is passed. The Department of Education submission to the Senate inquiry reinforces the threat. It states:
Current legislated indexation arrangements for non-government schools and participating states (New South Wales, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory) will apply. Funding for other states would need to fit within the remaining available funding envelope. [pp. 4, 21]
This is blatant political blackmail. Birmingham is openly prepared to sacrifice the needs of disadvantaged students in the non-participating states if Gonski 2.0 is not passed by the Senate. In effect, he is prepared to cut funding to the majority of public schools in the country. Public schools in these states enrol over 80% of disadvantaged students. They will bear the cost of any cutbacks in funding by the Commonwealth Government. Birmingham is threatening the future of these students.
But the threat does not apply to private schools in the non-participating states because all private schools and systems are considered to be participating authorities. They are guaranteed funding increases under the Education Act.
It should be noted also that the distinction between participating and non-participating states in the Education Act is the result of Coalition attempts to sabotage Gonski 1.0 while in Opposition. In the lead up to the 2013 election, it incited the Coalition governments in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory not to sign up to Gonski 2.0 as a way of undermining the plan. Then it further sabotaged the plan immediately on assuming government. Christopher Pyne, as Education Minister, excluded Victoria and Tasmania from the plan on the technicality that they had not signed bilateral agreements with the Commonwealth before the election even though they had signed the in-principle agreement and intended to fully participate. Pyne didn’t give them the opportunity to complete the bilateral agreements before issuing a Determination that they were to be regarded as non-participating states.
The Government will wear the odium of the community if it follows through on its threat to cut funding for public schools in the non-participating states. It will be seen as responsible for cutting funding for public schools and disadvantaged students in five States and Territories while increasing over-funding of private schools to the extent that several hundred more will be over-funded.
Senators in the Commonwealth Parliament should resist Birmingham’s outright political blackmail and intimidation.