Gillard Should Go it Alone on Gonski

The Prime Minister’s pointed and repeated refusal to commit, even in principle or in part, to taking up the recommendation of the Gonski review to boost school funding leaves government schools very vulnerable to getting little out of the review. Yet, over-funded private schools will continue to be guaranteed their privileged funding, and many private schools may get even more as the Government goes into an election year.

The Gonski report estimates that an additional $5 billion a year is needed to reduce the effects of disadvantage on education outcomes. About 75% of this ($3.75 billion) would go to government schools because they have a much higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The large part of this will be borne by the states. The report says that the Federal Government would bear around 30% of the total cost, or $1.5 billion, with much of it going to private schools under the existing division of federal/state responsibilities. This leaves the states footing a bill of $3.5 billion, as they bear the primary responsibility for funding government schools.

Therefore, the proposed increase for government schools will have to be negotiated with the states. They are unlikely to be co-operative, especially with Liberal Governments in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and soon Queensland. The WA and Victorian Governments have already started the wrangling by accusing the Gillard Government of wanting to take over school education.

We will hear a lot more from the Liberal states about the Federal takeover of education – as if this didn’t happen under the Howard Government. The prospect is for interminable wrangling through federal/state institutional structures such as the Council of Australian Governments and the national education ministers’ council which will delay, reduce or even stop funding increases for government schools.

The Gillard Government may have to proceed on the future arrangements for private school funding before a deal, if any, is made with the states on government school funding. The legislation for Federal Government funding of private schools will have to be presented and pass through the Parliament by mid-2013 to be in place by the end of 2013 when the current funding arrangements expire.

In the absence of any agreement with the states, the Government will have to continue with its own funding rates (the Gonski report recommends combining federal and state government funding for private schools in a new set of funding rates according to the measured socio-economic status (SES) of schools). It will have to decide whether to revise the current funding rates, which the Gonski report describes as unfair and incoherent, or continue with them. It certainly faces a dilemma.

Central to this dilemma is what to do with the so-called funding maintained (FM) schools who get more funding than other private schools with the same measured SES score.

One option is to incorporate the current over-funding of so-called funding maintained (FM) schools into a new set of funding rates where all schools get funded according to their actual SES. As FM schools get higher funding than other private schools on the same SES score, this would deliver a huge increase in private school funding as schools now funded at their SES rate are brought up to the FM rates. The Government will face an outcry if it does this, especially as the biggest increases would go to higher SES schools.

A better option is to freeze the funding of all FM schools and allow cost increases over time to erode their funding advantage over other schools on the same SES score. As Judith Sloan says in The Australian (28 February 2012), it is time to transition them to funding at their SES score and “tell them to get over it”.

However, the Prime Minister appears to have ruled this out with a new “no losers” guarantee that all private school funding will continue to be indexed against cost increases. This means continuing the massive over-funding of FM schools into the next funding period. Sloan predicts “some dodgy stitch-up” to give FM schools “yet another reprieve”.

The Government also faces the prospect of a major push by private school organisations to get more funding for students with disabilities. They have been harping on this for some time using very misleading figures. Now, they will cite the Gonski report in support of their case, even though it carefully proposes to separate out baseline funding for schools and funding loadings for disadvantage.

Their case is fraudulent. Private schools are double dipping on funding for disability students (and other disadvantaged students). They only cite direct funding figures in their comparisons of disability funding in government and private schools. They ignore the substantial indirect funding they get through the link between general private school funding and average government school recurrent costs. On average, private schools are over-funded for disability students in comparison with government schools because they have a much lower proportion of these students and benefit from their funding link to the higher costs of the higher proportion of disability students in government schools.

However, 2013 is an election year and the Government will likely see increased funding for disability students as an opportunity to curry more favour with private school organisations and families.

So, we could have a scenario where increased funding for government schools is tied up in federal/state wrangling, or denied by state governments, while private schools get their over-funding guaranteed for another four years and maybe get a funding increase. This would be a sad and unfortunate irony of the Gonski review given its priority to reduce disadvantage in education.

The only real solution for government schools is for the Gillard Government to go it alone and take up the Gonski recommendation to increase funding for disadvantaged students and schools by $5 billion. This is the only way progress can be made on improving the results of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students. It is entirely consistent with federal responsibilities in school funding to meet the needs of disadvantaged students.

Apart from being necessary to reduce the vast inequity in education in Australia as documented in the Gonski report, such a commitment would be a major investment for the future. It would provide for increased productivity and living standards through increased knowledge and skills of the workforce – a stated priority of the Government – and it would reduce future government expenditure on health care, social security and law and order.

Trevor Cobbold

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