Federal Officials Confirm the Coalition’s Sabotage of Gonski

The Senate Estimates hearing on education at the end of February shed more light on how the Coalition Government is sabotaging the Gonksi funding model. The hearing revealed that the Government will dishonour agreements made with some state and territory governments to provide funding increases over the next six years and it will not hold governments to their agreements to increase funding over the next four years; nor will it place conditions on the funding it has provided to the governments that refused to sign up to Gonski. The other sabotage is that state and territory governments will not be required to implement a needs-based funding model and perhaps nor will private school organisations.

First of all, Education Department officials confirmed that the Government will not honour agreements made between the previous ALP Federal Government and the NSW, South Australian, Victorian, Tasmanian and ACT governments beyond the next four years. These agreements provided for large increases in school funding for an additional two years beyond the current four-year Budget Estimates period, with increases committed by both levels of government. Officials stated that the agreements will be re-negotiated for the next quadrennium.

All this was very apparent from the following exchange between Senator Kim Carr and Lisa Paul, Secretary of the Department of Education:

Senator KIM CARR: Is it the case that there are now no agreements in place for funding beyond the forward estimates?
Ms Paul: The government’s commitment is clear that there will be another agreement negotiated for the next quadrennium in the normal way that quadrennium occur….
Senator KIM CARR: I have just seen statements from some state Premiers, for instance, saying that they want the agreements implemented that were previously undertaken. Is it the Commonwealth’s intention to honour those agreements?
Ms Paul: Yes. The government’s intention is to honour those agreements for the four years.
Senator KIM CARR: No, beyond the four? That is the whole point.
Ms Paul: And then to renegotiate for the next quadrennium; that is correct.
Senator KIM CARR: They are not committed to implementing the previous agreements?
Ms Paul: That is right. Some of which were for six years. That is correct.

The abrogation of these agreements represents a major loss of guaranteed funding for government schools in these states and the territory in 2018 and 2019. There is now no guarantee that Federal or state/territory funding will increase in these years, let alone by billions of dollars as planned under the agreements.

The second piece of sabotage is that the Victorian and Tasmanian governments will not even be held to their four-year funding agreement which commits them to increasing funding for government schools. This is because while these governments signed the National Education Reform Agreement they did not actually sign bilateral agreements with the Federal Government before the last election, as required under the Education Act to be considered as participating in the Gonksi funding package, even though they had publicly announced that they would do so. The bilateral agreements were not signed because the implementation plans required for them were not completed before the Federal election was called, but there was clear intent by these governments to participate in the plan.

The Federal Education Department officials made it very clear that the Government is using this legal technicality to exclude Victoria and Tasmania from the requirements of the Gonksi funding arrangements:

Senator KIM CARR: I appreciate that. That is the standard set of conditions. Now, in regard to the non-participating states, and you have indicated, for instance, the states that signed up—Victoria and Tasmania signed up later—ACT, New South Wales and South Australia. Are there separate conditions for Victoria and Tasmania?
Mr Cook: Victoria and Tasmania have the National Education Reform Agreement that they signed with the previous government. The minister has been quite clear in relation to that; while those agreements are in place it is a matter for Victoria and Tasmania as to how they actually commit to those agreements that they made with the previous government.
Senator KIM CARR: Is the current government insisting on those conditions?
Mr Cook: No, I do not think that is the case at all. I think the minister was clear. In fact, I think he said in the House that it is a matter for those two states as to whether they choose to meet those conditions or not.
Ms Paul: Because there is a commitment to remove the command and control elements and to allow states to run their own affairs.

The implication is that the Victorian and Tasmanian governments will not even be required to increase their funding for schools over the next four years, let alone the last two years of Labor’s six year funding package. The Government has excluded them on a legal technicality that could easily have been fixed by allowing the Victorian and Tasmanian to complete their implementation plans if it were serious about implementing Gonksi.

The third piece of sabotage is that the Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments will not be required to meet any conditions relating to their own funding in return for the recently announced Federal recurrent grants of $1.2 billion over the next four years. These governments refused to sign bilateral agreements with the Labor Government to implement the Gonski funding deal. The Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has said that he expects these governments to maintain their effort in school funding, but there is no compulsion to do so, and there is no commitment to increase funding.

Once again, this was all made clear by the Federal officials to the Estimates Committee:

Senator KIM CARR: That covers that. If we then turn to the other states. We are talking here about Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. What are the conditions associated with those agreements?
Mr Cook: The two states and one territory did not sign a National Education Reform Agreement, so there are no conditions in relation to the previous National Plan for School Improvement that other states and territories had signed to.
Senator KIM CARR: What conditions did they sign up to? Do we have a document that explains that?
Mr Cook: There is no document per se. There is an exchange of letters between ministers in relation to the funding that they will receive. With those three states, there is one agreement and one act that applies to them. The first act is the Australian Education Act, as I indicated.
Senator KIM CARR: Yes, I have that.
Mr Cook: They are still signatories to the National Education Agreement. The conditions of the National Education Agreement would still apply to those three states.
Senator KIM CARR: Are there any other conditions?
Mr Cook: The minister indicated in his letter—and I think the minister has also been public around this as well—an expectation that those three states maintain their efforts in terms of school funding.
Senator KIM CARR: What is the nature of that commitment? It is an expectation, but what is the nature of any commitment from those signatory states or territory?
Ms Paul: The minister has been clear that he is not wanting to control the way states manage their own affairs in terms of how they deliver schools but that that is his expectation.
In terms of the technicals of how that might be measured, we have not yet sat down with those states to work that out, but we will. That would be something to report back here probably later on.
Senator KIM CARR: You are yet to determine what they are?
Ms Paul: Yes, in terms of the measurements and so on, but he made his expectation clear. He wants those states to be able to operate with the freedom that they have to deliver the best possible education for their students and parents to whom they have to answer.
Senator KIM CARR: So, there is an expectation they will do the right thing, but there is no specific arrangement you can point to in regard to indexation, spending or the maintenance of effort, for instance? Is there any requirement to maintain effort?
Ms Paul: Yes. He has made that expectation clear. I just said that in terms of how we might sit down with them and work out how to show that we have not done that yet.
Senator KIM CARR: But there is nothing that you can point to where those states have actually committed to maintain effort?
Ms Paul: Not beyond what Mr Cook said by way of the Act and the National Education Agreement at this stage. In part, that reflects the clear commitment to allow states to operate in the way they see best.
Senator KIM CARR: Is there any sanction that the Commonwealth has indicated it would be prepared to implement if effort is not maintained?
Ms Paul: Not yet. It is the expectation in the letter. There are sanctions, of course, in the act.
Senator KIM CARR: For those provisions?
Ms Paul: Not for that provision.
Senator KIM CARR: But there is nothing in the Act that says you must maintain effort, is there?
Ms Paul: No, I do not think so.
Mr Cook: The Act does not say that.

Thus, the Coalition Government has handed over $1.2 billion to these states for the next four years without any conditions whatsoever on their part beyond a vague expectation that they continue their funding effort.

The final piece of sabotage is that state and territory governments will not be required to implement a needs-based funding model for resourcing schools as agreed under the National Education Reform Agreement. The Federal Government will use the needs-based funding formula based on the Gonski report to distribute money to the states and territories but they will not be required to allocate it to schools according to that formula. The Coalition sees the requirement for the states to have a needs-based funding model as a “command and control” requirement that breaches states’ rights.

A Federal Department of Education official acknowledged before the Estimates Committee that there will be a myriad of funding models in place:

Senator McKENZIE: I wanted to move on to the specifics of the Gonski model. In terms of the needs based funding model that we have been negotiating—and I think with the campaign the department will be getting me the figures on what that cost us around the term ‘Gonski’. It was quite strongly branded ‘Gonski’, referring to the needs based funding model developed by a panel led by David Gonski. Could you comment on how the current funding model, if there is indeed a funding model or multiple funding models, departs from the Gonski model? I think out in the community there is a misunderstanding that it is one brand.
Mr Cook: There are a few things in relation to that. To start with, there is a Commonwealth funding model through which all Commonwealth money for government and non-government schools is allocated, but then every state and territory has their own funding model. Every Catholic system has its own funding model, which may be different to the state funding model as well as the Commonwealth funding model. Every independent system—different from a Catholic system—may also have their own funding model. In terms of the model that was accepted by the previous government, which also was different from the Gonski model, it is only independent schools that are not part of a system. They get money from the Commonwealth based on the model that was finally agreed by the previous government.

The existing funding regimes for disadvantaged students were strongly criticised by the Gonski report on school funding. It said:

A significant shift is required in the way all governments provide funding to address educational disadvantage. Existing arrangements are complex and do not accurately capture student need within student groups. They also fail to take account of the significant impact of concentration of disadvantage at the school level. [p. 137]

The statement by the official to the Estimates hearing suggests that these failures are likely to remain. To date, only NSW has implemented a needs-based funding model based on the Gonski formula. Under the Australian Education Act, private school organisations are required to allocate their government funding to schools according to the Gonksi needs-based principles. It remains to be seen whether they do and whether the Coalition will hold them to these requirements. It may be that the Coalition also sees this requirement as a “command and control” feature to be removed from the legislation.

All that remains of the Gonksi funding deal is a Federal funding increase of $2.8 billion (of which only $0.9 billion is actually new funding) over the next four years and that the NSW, South Australian and ACT governments are technically committed to increasing their funding over the next four years. However, given that the Coalition has let the Victorian and Tasmanian governments off the hook on their in-principle agreement to the funding deal and has placed no conditions on the Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments to increase their funding, it is difficult to envision that it will force the original participating states to stick to their agreements. NSW, South Australia and the ACT are effectively off the hook as well.

Not only does this mean that there will be no requirement for state and territory governments to increase school funding, but it also means that they are free to substitute the (small) Federal funding increase for their own funding, that is, cut their funding for schools. All the Coalition is prepared to do is to say it expects the states and territories to maintain their funding effort – there is no agreement or requirement that they do so.

The end result is that $13.1 billion of the planned $15.9 billion increase in school funding under the Gonski plan over the next six years is all but lost because of the Coalition sabotage.

The big losers are government schools and disadvantaged students. Almost 90 per cent of government school funding comes from state/territory governments and their Federal funding is delivered via the states. They could end up with no additional funding or even less and there is no requirement for governments to implement needs-based funding models to benefit disadvantaged students. All this will completely undermine the goal of the Gonski funding plan to reduce inequity in education outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Approximately 80 per cent of disadvantaged students attend government schools.

The only certainty is that Catholic and Independent schools will get their part of the Federal funding increase because it is provided under federal legislation and is delivered directly to schools or via private school system authorities. The Coalition is prepared to guarantee funding increases for private schools but not for government schools and disadvantaged students. Its sabotage of Gonksi, shows that the Coalition’s priority is to defend privilege in education rather than reduce inequity between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

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