Catholic Submission to the School Funding Review Makes Important Concessions

The National Catholic Education Commission’s submission to the school funding review makes for interesting reading. It makes two very important concessions. First, the Commission has finally conceded that the student population of Catholic schools has a higher socio-economic status (SES) than government schools. Second, the submission acknowledges that the official statistics on school expenditure over-state government school expenditure in comparison with private schools.

The submission cites selective evidence that student achievement in Catholic schools is higher than in government schools and repeats the false claim that students with disabilities in Catholic schools receive less government funding than in government schools.

Social composition
The submission states that Catholic schools educate a lower proportion of students with high education needs (students with disabilities (SWD), Indigenous and low SES students) than government schools. It says that fewer students from low income families attend Catholic schools compared to government schools. It acknowledges that Indigenous and SWD students are under-represented in Catholic schools.

The submission also clearly shows that Independent schools have a much higher SES composition than either Catholic or government schools.

This is the first time the Catholic Education Commission has ever conceded that Catholic schools serve higher SES families than government schools. It has long perpetrated that myth that the social composition of Catholic and government schools is similar.

However, having conceded this, the submission tries to argue that Catholic schools are not too dissimilar in terms of SES school scores. Yet, the figures it cites from Western Australia to support this view actually show a large difference in SES scores for Catholic and government schools. It says that 69% of government schools in WA have an SES score below 100 compared to 54% of Catholic schools.

Census and other official data show that educationally disadvantaged students comprise a much larger proportion of government school enrolments than in private schools. Students from low income families comprised 40% of government school enrolments in 2006 compared to 25% in Catholic schools and 22% in Independent schools. Only 27% of government school enrolments were from high income families compared to 43% of Catholic school enrolments and 53% of Independent school enrolments.

Indigenous students accounted for 5.7% of government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 1.9% in Catholic schools and 1.6% of Independent school enrolments. Students with disabilities comprised 5.5% of all government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 3.3% of Catholic school enrolments and 1.9% of Independent school enrolments.

Overall, the extent of education disadvantage in government schools in Australia is much greater than in private schools. Low income, Indigenous and disability students comprise over 50% of government school enrolments compared to 30% in Catholic and 26% in Independent schools.

The latest data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) also shows that there are substantial differences in student composition in private and government schools. Using a different measure of socio-economic status from that used for the figures cited above, it shows that 35% of government school students are from the lowest socio-economic quartile compared to 16% of Catholic school students and 10% of students in Independent schools. About 30% of Catholic school students and almost 50% of Independent school students are drawn from the highest socio-economic quartile compared to 16% of government school students.

School expenditure
The submission acknowledges that there are several problems with the expenditure data for private and government schools which make accurate comparisons difficult. It notes that there are many inconsistencies in the treatment of private and government school expenditure. It says that direct comparisons will not be definitive until consistent financial data is developed.

This is also a significant concession by the Catholic Education Commission as it has always used the flawed official figures to claim that Catholic schools are under-resourced in comparison to government schools.

In contrast to other private school groups, the submission excludes the user cost of capital from expenditure figures on government schools in making comparisons of government and private school expenditure. This is a significant step forward in the debate over school expenditure.

However, the submission continues to claim that Catholic schools are under-resourced in comparison to government schools. It states that the latest figures show that recurrent expenditure in Catholic schools is $9,410 per student compared to $10,760 in government schools and $13,081 in other private schools.

This comparison is misleading. Recurrent expenditure on government schools includes depreciation which is not included in private school recurrent expenditure figures. Payroll tax and school transport expenditure is also included in the government school figures but not in private school recurrent expenditure. When these items are excluded from government school expenditure, total recurrent expenditure in government and Catholic schools is very similar.

Total recurrent expenditure in government schools in 2007-08 excluding the user cost of capital, depreciation and payroll tax was $9,858. No figures are available on school transport expenditure, but on the basis of published figures for NSW ($402 per student) and Queensland ($220 per student), it could be of the order of $300 per student. This further adjustment gives a recurrent figure of about $9,358 per student, which is slightly less than the Catholic school figure.

However, the Catholic school estimate cited in the submission is for 2008 while the government school figure is for 2007-08. Recurrent expenditure in Catholic schools for 2007-08 was $9,063 per student, slightly less than government school recurrent expenditure.

The Catholic school figure also excludes the cost of tax deductible donations, which are much more significant for private schools than government schools, government expenditure on administration of funding and regulation of private schools, and expenditure on shared government services for private schools. If it were possible to include these items, it is likely that recurrent expenditure in Catholic and government schools is very similar.

An alternative measure of school expenditure is to include capital expenditure. When this is done, together with the above adjustments, the comparative figures are $10,399 per student in Catholic schools and $10,423 in government schools.

Student achievement
The submission also states that the education performance of Catholic schools is better than government schools even after allowing for differences in student profile. It cites studies that adjust results for differing socio-economic composition and find that Catholic schools have higher average results on university entrance and Victorian Certificate of Education scores.

However, the differences between Catholic and government schools are minor and other evidence shows that there is no difference between the sectors when the socio-economic background of students is taken into account.

The differences in results between Catholic and government schools after controlling for differences in the socio-economic background of students are minor, amounting to 4 to 5 score points on university entrance scores. When the prior achievement of students is also taken into account the differences are even smaller. The most recent of the studies cited concedes that the differences in results are small.

The latest PISA results show that once differences in students’ socio-economic background are taken into account (by adjusting the mean scores for student’s individual socio-economic background and for the school average socio-economic background), there is no statistically significant differences in the average reading, mathematical and scientific literacy scores of students from Catholic, Independent and government schools.

School autonomy
The submission states that school autonomy in Catholic schools is linked to better achievement. It claims that a number of studies have linked the school autonomy practised in Catholic schools to positive achievement. It says:

This is most evident where schools have autonomy over teacher recruitment, staffing decisions and instructional approaches.
Greater school autonomy and self-management is also associated with financial efficiency and lower operating costs.

These claims are contradicted by a recent survey of research studies on school autonomy which found that there is no compelling evidence to support giving autonomy for principals in hiring and firing teachers and for financial management of schools. Further, a recent OECD report analyzing cross-country results from PISA 2009 shows that schools which have control over budgets and the hiring and firing of teachers do not achieve better results.

Despite claiming that Catholic schools operate autonomously, the submission advocates continuing with block funding of the Catholic system.

Funding for students with disabilities
The submission states that limited funding for SWD undermines the ability of Catholic schools to provide services to SWD comparable to govt schools. It claims that SWD in private schools are under-resourced compared to government schools.

These claims that they receive less funding for SWD than government schools are incorrect because they only consider direct additional government funding for these students. They ignore substantial indirect additional funding for SWD in private schools which occurs because the Commonwealth and State Government general recurrent grants to private schools are linked to government school costs, which includes the costs of educating SWD.

Government schools enrol a much higher proportion of enrolments of SWD than Catholic (5.9% compared to an average of 3.3%) and incur correspondingly higher costs. Catholic schools receive a portion of this higher expenditure even though they enrol far fewer of these students than government schools. This provides a source of additional funding for SWD in private schools or which can be diverted to other students.

For example, on average, the additional funding for SWD in NSW Catholic schools is 23% higher per student than in government schools. The additional funding for SWD in NSW Independent schools is nearly 80% higher than in government schools.

A recent NSW parliamentary committee report on SWD rejected claims by private school organisations that students with disabilities in private schools receive less special funding than students with disabilities in government schools. The report recommended an increase in funding for students with disabilities in NSW government schools but not for private schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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