A recent report from Jennifer Buckingham and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) illustrates how much the debate on schools funding has rightly developed an emphasis on equity goals, creating a good deal of confusion in the private school lobby. Instead of being dominated by the aim of promoting school choice, which led to marked increases for some of the elite private schools under the previous Howard Government and was continued by the Rudd and Gillard Governments, as Buckingham puts it, “it is difficult to justify providing extra public funds to already well-resourced students and schools.”
Yet the funding model she proposes does precisely this. Essentially, she has proposed a model that gives every student at government and private schools an entitlement to baseline government funding equivalent to a basic standard, the National Resource Standard of $10,000. This would be provided to all non-government schools which charge less than $5,000 a year in fees. This applies to the vast majority of private schools, giving them a further resource advantage over government schools, which will be restricted to the National Resource Standard.
For schools charging over $5,000 a year in fees, this entitlement government funding would be reduced in proportion to fees charged, with government funding reaching a minimum General Student Entitlement (GSE) of $3,000 a year at $19,000 a year. Most of the figures used are quite arbitrary, but the GSE appears to be designed to rule out any losses for the elite high fee private schools, since, as Buckingham puts it, the GSE “approximates the level of combined state and federal government funding currently provided to a student in a high SES private school.”
It is hard to take Buckingham’s analysis seriously, when she starts by admitting that it is hard to justify additional funding for already well-resourced private schools, and then delivers a funding model which delivers major funding increases to the vast majority of non-government schools. Her model will deliver an increase in government funding of about $3150 per student in these schools – a 46% increase on the current level of government funding – while government schools get no increase.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that this model represents a marked departure from the voucher concept of an unweighted entitlement to equal government funding for all children, irrespective of the school they attend, as proposed, for example, by Independent Schools Victoria. This shift is justified by Buckingham on the grounds that a funding scheme should not act to increase socio-economic inequalities, even though her model does in practice. Her model also maintains an entitlement to government funding for schools which have no need for additional funding.
The Buckingham model is similar in very limited respects to the Save Our Schools (SOS) model, in arguing for a National Resource Standard, and linking government funding in part to fees charged. But the way in which it is applied leads to absolutely different outcomes. She in no way justifies providing funding of $10,000 a year to schools charging $5,000 a year in fees, before they lose government funding. This cannot be justified as good use of government funding, if the funding provided to government schools of roughly $10,000 a year is sufficient for a community standard of education.
Buckingham also provides no real justification for continuing to provide government funding to schools charging fees as high as $18,000 a year or more. Instead, she sets the GSE at a level which ensures that the elite schools do not lose any funding. Once again, this is a waste of government funding which cannot be justified, given the need for increased funding for government schools to deal with the major equity challenges which are well-documented in relation to disadvantage associated with low SES background, Indigenous origin, rural and remote residence, and other specific ethnic backgrounds, and the need to increase funding for students with disabilities, all of whom are concentrated in government schools.
All in all, the CIS funding model is a recipe for continuing considerable waste of government resources to serve an ideological end, the promotion of private funding of education.
Buckingham relies on the entitlement argument for government funding of well-off private schools. This is the argument that all families with children in private schools are entitled to get back some of the taxes they pay. While she has effectively conceded that a full voucher entitlement model cannot be justified, she obviously feels a need to maintain the faith. The concept of entitlement ignores the fact that in sending their children to private schools, parents opt to not take advantage of the availability of essentially free and high quality education in government schools. Presumably, parents opt to pay fees of this level because of perceived benefits for their children, although analysis of educational outcomes suggests that after allowing for student background and concentrations of disadvantage, educational outcomes are no better in the non-government sector. So whatever the perceived advantages are, and many of these may be completely illusory, it is really up to the parents to pay for them.
There is, in fact, no basis in public policy logic for the idea that an individual has an entitlement to funding if they decide not to use a public service. Arguing that people who decide not to use the government school system have a right to compensatory funding is rather like arguing that those who choose to use a backyard pool instead of the municipal pool, choose to use taxis instead of public transport, or choose to buy their own books instead of using the public library, are entitled to a public subsidy.
The one feature that is shared by the SOS and CIS models is the idea that disadvantaged students should receive similar additional targeted funding whatever school they attend. We have taken this position on the grounds that students who are disadvantaged in their learning should receive the same level of targeted funding wherever they are enrolled and should not suffer because of the choices that their parents make, but the parents should pay for their basic choice – an idea which is clearly incorporated into the SOS funding model.
In the area of funding for disadvantage, the Buckingham model is extremely vague. It uses a notional figure of $1,000 per disadvantaged student, very approximately based on current funding levels. But it makes no further use of this figure, which is perhaps fortunate, since the current achievement gaps between rich and poor shows that the current allocations for disadvantage are completely inadequate. Buckingham makes some valid points about the importance of ensuring that funding is well spent, but proposes no solution, whereas the SOS model specifically advocates regular monitoring of outcomes against equity targets to assess whether they are being achieved. This sort of process would provide a regular opportunity to assess the effectiveness of programs, to popularise effective programs and to revise funding allocations as required.
Buckingham states that it will never be possible to achieve absolute equity goals, because children of wealthier and better educated parents benefit from out-of-school advantages. This misses the point that schools, particularly those serving disadvantaged communities, can help to compensate for this form of disadvantage by providing for activities as diverse as structured home-work programs to a broad range of extracurricular activities – all of which require additional funding.
There is nothing at all in the Buckingham model for government schools. It maintains another consistent CIS theme, namely that parents whose children attend high SES government schools could be asked to contribute more, perhaps through compulsory fees. Instead, the SOS model advocates taking high SES government schools as the baseline, because these schools achieve national goals for schooling, at least in terms of formal outcomes, and there is a clear relationship between SES and educational outcomes, with outcomes dropping linearly as SES drops. To recognise this is not to accept that demographic background is destiny, but simply to recognise that addressing disadvantage requires additional funding to support effective programs.
Buckingham is at least ahead of some of private school organisations, which deny that SES disadvantage is an issue, when it is in fact is most pervasive of all forms of disadvantage. Independent Schools Victoria argue for example that the relationship between student SES and test results is “weak” and “inconclusive” and that “low SES has a minor influence on student performance”. In contrast, Buckingham recognises that the evidence on the impact of low SES on student results is “convincing”. She also recognises that many students suffer from multiple disadvantages, and that there is a multiplier effect of having concentrations of disadvantage. But there is no follow-up on these insights – perhaps because they are just too hard to deal with in the CIS ideological framework of undermining the government school system in order to promote privatisation of education.
Buckingham does address, almost in passing, one difficult issue – the importance of schools adhering to community standards in return for government funding. She recognises the problems posed by religious schools, where particular religions often have distinct views on some contentious issues which are out-of-step with community standards. Buckingham specifically raises the issue of teaching about homosexuality, implicitly questioning government funding for schools which advocate the extremist views of people such as Cardinal Pell.
SOS argues that all Australian children have the right to a community standard of sex education, about sexuality and about contraception and abortion, which all schools should adhere to. This is not always provided in schools. There is also the issue of evolution and so-called creation science or outright creationism in fundamentalist Christian and Islamic schools. The obvious solution in this area is to require private schools to provide adequate education to a community standard in all areas in their general educational programs, while leaving them free to teach according to their religious beliefs in their religious classes. These issues are generally best addressed by registration, where schools which refuse to guarantee adequate education in these areas should simply be refused registration. Those that promise to provide should be monitored to ensure compliance, to ensure that compliance is more than perfunctory.
In contrast to Buckingham’s model, the SOS model addresses government funding for private schools in relation to the need of the schools for funding to achieve a resource standard. This was the argument that changed the public debate on “state aid” several decades ago, because so many Catholic schools were operating with clearly inadequate resources. Australia simply could not tolerate sub-standard education for a large proportion of its children. A key feature of the SOS model is therefore that the “entitlement” is to top-up funding to fees to ensure that non-government schools can guarantee a minimum resource standard to all students. On top of which the schools receive targeted funding to address student disadvantage.
This could lead to a proliferation of low or zero fee sectarian schools, and the entitlement in the SOS model to top-up funding is therefore qualified by the extent to which the schools adhere to open enrolment policies and reasonable policies on suspension and expulsion of students. Schools which want to have sectarian enrolment practices, on whatever basis, or which reserve the right to expel any students who create challenges, would have their entitlement to funding reduced. They would then be refused registration if they could not ensure that fees plus government funding guaranteed the minimum resource level. This would have the very desirable effect of encouraging non-government schools with more open and less sectarian practices.
Overall, this CIS paper is an important admission that equity arguments have won the day, at least intellectually, even though it ends up proposing a model which attempts to gloss over the fact that it advantages most private schools and protects the most elite from funding cuts, while giving nothing at all to government schools which serve the majority of disadvantaged students. It is now up to the Gonski Committee to make recommendations for funding policies that effectively promote equity, and for the Gillard Government to take on the powerful private school lobby and put these policies into practice.
Dr. Ian Morgan