The National Catholic Education Commission has called for more funding for Catholic schools by the Federal Government. It says there is a resource gap between Catholic schools and government schools and that government funding of government schools has been increasing faster than for private schools.
This claim ignores the much higher level of disadvantage in government schools compared to Catholic and other private schools. Government schools do the heavy lifting in education and they should have more resources than private schools. Their funding should be increasing faster than private schools if the achievement gaps between rich and poor, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and between remote area and metropolitan students are to be reduced.
In support of its call for more government funding, the Commission cites figures obtained from the My School website that government schools had net income of $11,100 per student in 2009 while Catholic schools had $10,000 per student. The comparative figure for Independent schools was $13,700.
It should be noted that these figures exclude income allocated to current and future capital projects. The gross income figures given on the My School website are: $11,200 per government school student; $10,900 per Catholic school student and $15,300 per Independent school student.
The My School figures also exclude some other items which primarily benefit private schools. For example, they exclude student transport subsidies, the cost of tax deductible donations and Australian Government administration of private school funding.
However, whatever figures are used, simplistic funding comparisons like those made by the Catholic Education Commission are meaningless without regard to the tasks and challenges faced by the different school sectors. Funding is a means to an end and the main priority facing Australian education is to improve equity in education outcomes as stated in the National Goals for Schooling agreed by all Australian governments..
In general, student outcomes are highly correlated with a number of student background characteristics. The latest national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) results show that students from families of low socio-economic status (SES), Indigenous students, and students in remote areas have much lower average school outcomes than students from more privileged backgrounds.
Large gaps between disadvantaged and high SES students are also apparent in the results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) over the last decade. On average, low SES and remote area secondary students are about three years behind high SES students while Indigenous students are about four years behind.
High proportions of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students are not achieving adequate standards. In 2009, 22 to 28% of low SES students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 4-5% of high SES students. Thirty-five to 40% of Indigenous students and one-quarter to a third of remote area students did not achieve the benchmarks.
Much higher costs are associated with ensuring that disadvantaged students achieve adequate standards of education and improve their results relative to high SES students. In addition, there are substantially higher costs associated with educating students with disabilities.
The large majority of low SES, Indigenous, remote area and disability students are enrolled in government schools. Census data shows that 77% of low income students attend government schools and the latest enrolment data shows that 86% of Indigenous students, 79% of disability students, and 83% of remote area students attended government schools in 2009.
Data from the 2009 PISA study shows that 35% of government secondary school students are from the lowest SES quartile, compared to 16% of Catholic students and 10% of students in Independent schools. On the other hand, only 16% of government school students are from the highest SES quartile compared to almost 30% of Catholic students and almost 50% of students in Independent schools.
The proportion of Indigenous, disability and remote area students in government schools is about two to three times that in Catholic and Independent schools.
According to the My School website, 92% of all low SES schools in Australia are government schools while only 5% are Catholic schools and 3% are Independent schools.
Clearly, it is government schools that are doing the heavy lifting in education in Australia. Catholic and Independent schools are not meeting the same social obligations as government schools. They under-enrol higher cost students.
Government schools should have much higher funding than either Catholic or Independent schools to meet these challenges. Yet, according to the figures cited by the Catholic Education Commission, government schools only have marginally more total funding than Catholic schools and much less than Independent schools.
Save Our Schools has estimated that at least an additional $6.3 billion a year is needed for government schools to bring disadvantaged student results up to the average of all other students. Such an increase would put average government school funding at about $15,000 per student, or $5,000 more than in Catholic schools at present and over $1,000 more than in Independent schools.
This is the benchmark for future funding of school education in Australia. Anything less means that government schools are under-funded.