Is Gillard Preparing to Dump Gonski?

It seems that the Prime Minister may not “give a Gonski”. When challenged at a community cabinet meeting in Brisbane this week to implement the recommendations of the Gonski report on school funding she put the onus on state governments. Her response raises the question as to whether the Federal Government is preparing to dump the report and sheet home blame to Coalition state governments.

According to the Brisbane Times, several questions were asked of Gillard about implementing the report, with one woman asking “What is stopping the implementations of the Gonski report? It’s so important, we need you guys to get on board”.

Gillard’s answer was revealing as it suggests that it all depends on state governments coming on board:

“It’s a very big change to what we have now with very big financial costs,” she said. “We are very focused on that work and we will be responding, but that challenge from David Gonski was not a challenge to us – it was a challenge to state governments.”

It is incredible that the Prime Minister denies that the Gonski report is a challenge for her government when, five months after the report was published, she still refuses to give it even ‘in principle’ endorsement. Gillard has been dissembling on school funding since the day the report was published. Now, it seems she is preparing to shift the blame for her inaction.

The Federal Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, also emphasises that implementation of the report will depend on agreement by state governments. According to the Ipswich newspaper The Satellite, he told a forum at Springfield Lakes State School in Brisbane this week that legislation for a new school funding model would be introduced in the Parliament “once a negotiated agreement with school systems and State Governments had been reached”. He has long said that the Gonski funding model “is not government policy”.

In the light of the Government’s prevarication, the question has to be asked whether it is doing to Gonski what it did to Andrew Wilkie on poker machines – leading him through a thicket of vague promises, delay and negotiations in preparation to dumping the policy.

There is a simple test for the Government on Gonski: Is it prepared to give “in principle” endorsement to the report subject to working out the details of the new funding model? Until the Government is prepared to do this, its resolution must be in doubt.

The Federal Government’s failure to endorse the Gonski report has made its implementation hostage to interminable wrangling and delay. Coalition governments in the four largest states are not going to give the Gillard Government an easy run, especially given that the Federal Coalition has rejected the report. Most of them have also refused to endorse the report.

But, this is no excuse not to act. The Government has feasible options at hand even if a national agreement cannot be obtained soon.

First, it could negotiate bilateral deals with individual governments prepared to come on board. This is a well-established approach for specific funding programs such as the Smarter Schools National Partnerships and, more recently, Empowering Local Schools.

The NSW Government is the one Coalition government to publicly support implementation of the Gonski report. Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has voiced strong support and warned against the ‘’perils’’ of ignoring its recommendations.

He’s put in place what I think is a reasonable formula for the way in which education could be funded into the future. I think it’s a formula that both benefits public education and non-government education and it’s a formula that we would dismiss at our own peril.

A bilateral deal with the NSW Government would be major progress. If the Prime Minister announced that she is prepared to negotiate with the NSW Government it would set a path for Labor state/territory governments to do bilateral deals and put pressure on other Coalition state governments to come to the party.

The Federal Government also has the option of going it alone. A new Federal funding model for private schools does not need state/territory government agreement. Funding for disadvantaged schools and students has long been a key federal responsibility in school funding. While it has the financial capacity to take up the Gonski recommendation for a $5 billion increase in funding, the Government has preferred to waste $1.2 billion a year in appealing to the hip pocket of voters through the school kids bonus payment.

The Government would have the support of the Federal Parliament in proceeding on Gonksi. The three Independents – Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie – are all backing a new funding model. The Greens have also indicated their support for immediate action.

Prominent members of the Gonski review panel have publicly called for more action by the Government. Ken Boston has said: “I was disappointed that some investment, not necessarily $5 billion, but some further investment in education could not be made in the budget”. He said that a clear funding commitment by the Federal Government is needed to provide a framework for negotiations between the Federal and state/territory governments over the detail of the new funding model.

Carmen Lawrence said that she is disappointed and mystified by the Government’s failure to act.

I was disappointed the government didn’t say on day one: ‘This is what we are going to do’ and step it out over five to 10 years.

She said she didn’t know why the Government did not make a commitment to the report’s recommendations, particularly since the panel had kept it informed of its deliberations throughout the 18-month review and the Government appeared to have had no reservations.

The Federal Government should push ahead with implementing Gonski. It is the only way progress can be made to improve the results of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students and reduce the massive achievement gap between rich and poor.

To blame state governments for inaction would be culpable. It would demonstrate that the Gillard Government is not serious about addressing the effects of disadvantage on education. It would mean that the Government has turned its back on the disadvantaged to make cheap political gain by blaming the Coalition.

Save Our Schools urges support for the campaign to send a message to the Federal Government to implement the Gonski funding model. Everyone should sign up to I Give a Gonski because it is beginning to appear that the Prime Minister does not “give a Gonksi”.

Trevor Cobbold

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