Catholic Education Commission Puts up a Smokescreen on School Funding

The National Catholic Education Commission today grossly misrepresented the facts on the funding of public schools. It has done this to throw up a smokescreen over government funding trends that have favoured Catholic and Independent schools since 2009. The claims made by the NCEC are highly misleading and are based on selective figures. They ignore the huge load of disadvantage carried by public schools. They are designed to divert attention from the impact of discriminatory government funding policies that favour private schools over public schools.

The NCEC claim that SOS has manipulated the data in its report is totally incorrect. The SOS figures are drawn from official figures published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). They have been adjusted for inflation, using a conventional procedure based on the wage price index for private and public education and training. They show that government funding of Catholic and Independent schools increased by 8 per cent per student between 2009 and 2013 compared to a cut in funding for public schools of 1.9 per cent.

Instead of using ACARA’s figures, the NCEC has chosen to use unsourced figures to claim that government funding of public schools increased from $27.3 billion in 2012 to $28.2 billion in 2013, an increase of 3.2 per cent. These figures are misleading in several ways.

First, they show government funding for only two years. In contrast, the ACARA figures show the trend over four years.

Second, the NCEC figures are contradicted by the Report on Government Services 2015 which shows that total government funding for public schools increased by only 0.9 per cent in current dollars between 2012 and 2013. The increase was solely due to an increase in a book entry item called the user cost of capital which is not included in the ACARA figures.

Third, the NCEC figures are not adjusted for inflation. The Report on Government Services 2015 shows that total government funding for public schools adjusted for inflation fell by nearly $300 million between 2012 and 2013, even including the user cost of capital. When the user cost of capital is excluded, the fall was even greater.

Fourth, the NCEC figures are for total funding and do not allow for increasing student numbers. Public school enrolments increased by nearly 34,000 students in the one year considered by the NCEC. The ACARA figures show that total government funding in current dollars increased by only 1.4 per cent per student in 2012-13. Adjusted for inflation, this represents a fall of 1.5 per cent per student.

The Report on Government Services 2015 shows an even larger fall in government funding per student for public schools of 2 per cent for 2012-13 compared to an increase in government funding for private schools of 1.5 per cent per student (the Report on Government Services does not provide separate funding figures for Catholic and Independent schools).

Thus, even on the basis of its selective use of two years of data, the claims of the NCEC do not stand up. Adjusted for inflation, total government funding per student in public schools, declined and increased for private schools.

The NCEC also claims that SOS has manipulated the figures in comparing the total income of public and private schools by using gross recurrent income instead of net recurrent income. While there are legitimate reasons to use the gross income figure, in the case of Catholic and public school comparisons it makes little difference whether gross or net income is used. The gross income figures show that Catholic schools have slightly higher total income per student than public schools ($13,118 compared to $12,576 in 2013) and the net recurrent income figures show that public schools have slightly higher income per student than Catholic schools ($12,549 compared to $12,178).

Nevertheless, the trend in net recurrent income is clear – the income of Catholic schools has increased by much more than for public schools since 2009, reflecting the large increase in government funding for Catholic schools and the cut in funding for public schools. Adjusted for inflation, the net recurrent income per student in public schools fell by 1.5 per cent and increased in Catholic schools by 9.5 per cent and by 6 per cent in Independent schools.

The disparity between the changes in net recurrent income for Catholic and public schools was actually greater than the disparity shown by the gross income figures. Between 2009 and 2013, gross income per student in public schools adjusted for inflation fell by 2 per cent compared to an increase in Catholic schools of 8 per cent.

The fact is that Catholic and Independent schools have been favoured over public schools by government funding increases since 2009. Governments have ignored need in the public sector. Public schools enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students who need additional funding support to achieve similar results to more advantaged students. In 2013, public schools enrolled 82 per cent of low SES students compared to 12 per cent in Catholic schools and only six per cent in Independent schools. Public schools enrolled 84 per cent of Indigenous students compared to 10 per cent in Catholic schools and only five per cent in Independent schools.

The NCEC says that the funding increases for Catholic schools reflects their needs and cites increases in students with disabilities and Indigenous students. Let it be clear, SOS fully supports funding increases for such students whether in public or private schools. What we object to is the discriminatory approach taken by governments whereby the sectors with a small minority of disadvantaged students received significant increases in funding while funding for the sector with the large majority of disadvantaged students has been cut. Enrolments of students with disabilities increased significantly in all sectors between 2009 and 2013, but it was only public sector funding that was cut.

We also object to governments providing funding increases for elite private schools that have none or very few disadvantaged students while public schools have their funding cut.

Finally, SOS welcomes statements by the NCEC that government funding for schools should be based on need.  SOS would be pleased to work with the NCEC to ensure that future funding increases are directing at reducing the impact of disadvantage in education in both the public and private sectors and this can best be done by endorsing and working to improve the Gonski funding plan. The NCEC should be supporting concerted action to force the Abbott Government and Bill Shorten to commit to continuing and expanding support for disadvantaged students, irrespective of sector, not engaging in ham-fisted manipulation of the real funding figures.

Trevor Cobbold

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