Labor’s Gonski Promise Puts the Heat on Turnbull

After much dithering, Labor has finally delivered on Gonksi, at least for the most part. Bill Shorten and Kate Ellis have promised that a future Labor Government will fund the last two years of Gonski to the tune of an extra $4.5 billion.

Labor’s commitment is a very welcome development. It is a stark contrast to the Turnbull Government’s plan to ditch Gonski funding after 2017 and cut school funding in real terms. It puts the heat on the Prime Minister to deliver on his rhetoric about a fair go and the need for more resources for disadvantaged students.

Labor has committed a large amount of money that will make a huge difference for disadvantaged schools and students. If used in proven ways, it will help boost the results of disadvantaged schools and students and will contribute to reducing the large achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students in Australia. It will also have long-term social and economic benefits for the nation as a whole.

Labor has shown that funding Gonski is easily affordable. It says that billions and billions can be saved by clamping down on tax avoidance by multinational corporations and excessively generous superannuation tax concessions for high income earners. Save Our Schools research shows that there is a revenue pool of at least $34 billion a year from these and other sources. i

In contrast, Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham are continuing the policies of the Abbott Government. Turnbull and Birmingham are really Abbott and Pyne in disguise.

First, they confirmed the decision of Abbott and Pyne to ditch the Gonski funding increases originally planned for 2018 and 2019. This is a huge loss of about $7 billion in additional funding. It is a massive blow to disadvantaged schools and students, especially those in the public sector — $5.8 billion of the $7 billion would have gone to public schools.

It means that public schools in all states except the ACT will be forever stuck well below the national student resource standard (SRS), which is the minimum level of funding that should be available to every school as determined by the Australian Education Act. On average, public schools will still be operating at less 90% of the SRS at 2017 according to figures supplied to Senate Estimates by the Department of Education [Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Additional Budget Estimates 2014-2015, Answer to Question on Notice No. SQ15-000244]. This is substantially below the 2019 target of 95%. For example, public schools in NSW will be operating at 89% of the SRS in 2017, and Victorian public schools at only 82%.

In contrast, most private schools will have already achieved the 95% target by 2017. Independent schools in NSW will be operating at 101% and those in Victoria at 95% while Catholic schools will have 96% of the SRS in both states.

Ditching the last two years of Gonski funding therefore matters little for private schools. It is public schools who wear the big cost. It demonstrates that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about improving outcomes for the disadvantaged is a charade.

Second, the Turnbull Government is actually planning a real cut in school funding. It will continue the Abbott Government policy of linking school funding beyond 2017 to increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and enrolment growth. The CPI only increased by 1.7% in 2014-15. This is well below the 4.7% indexation of baseline funding that the Labor Government committed to under the National Education Reform Agreement.

It means that the Turnbull Government plans to cut baseline funding for schools by 3% a year if the CPI continues at its current rate. The lower indexation amounts to a cut of roughly $425 million in 2018 and 2019. This is on top of the loss of the additional $7 billion over the two years.

Turnbull and Birmingham continue to recite the Abbott and Pyne furphy that school funding has increased in real terms in the last decade without any improvement in school results as justification for terminating Gonski. The fact is that the real funding increase was miniscule and not targeted at students most in need.

Total government funding for schools (adjusted for inflation) increased by only 0.57% a year between 2003-04 and 2012-13 (latest figures available). In contrast, GDP growth averaged 3% a year over this period and even in the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009 it was 1.8%.

The largest funding increase went to private schools who enrol less than 20% of all disadvantaged students. The increase for private schools was double that for public schools — 1.04% a year compared to 0.51% for public schools.

Thus, there can be little wonder why Australia’s national and international test results have failed to improve or have declined in the last decade. Indeed, a 2013 study from the Melbourne Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research found that the decline in international test results is primarily due to falling results in Independent and Catholic schools despite their bigger funding increases. As David Gonski has said, past funding increases “were not applied on a needs based aspirational system”.

Moreover, many overseas studies show that money matters in education, especially for disadvantaged students. For example, a new review of studies just published concludes:

On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes. The size of this effect is larger in some studies than in others, and, in some cases, additional funding appears to matter more for some students than for others. Clearly, there are other factors that may moderate the influence of funding on student outcomes, such as how that money is spent. In other words, money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters. [p. i]

Labor’s commitment to increased school funding beyond 2017 has dramatically upped the ante on the Prime Minister. He too could deliver the full Gonski by reducing tax concessions and rampant tax evasion by the wealthy and multinational corporations.

The billion-dollar question for Labor is what happened to the $7 billion in additional funding it promised for the last two years of Gonski while in government. How has $7 billion now become $4.5 billion?

Shorten says that the Parliamentary Budget Office has costed the impact of funding years five and six of Gonski at $4.5 billion. He should publicly release the details of the costing and explain why Labor has now reduced the commitment it made in government by 35%.

The bottom line, however, is that $4.5 billion is better than nothing, which is all that Turnbull is offering unless he has a change of heart.

Labor has finally offered voters a real choice: support disadvantaged students by stopping the tax rorts by the wealthy and big business; or protect tax rorts by the wealthy and big business and ignore the needs of disadvantaged students.

Trevor Cobbold

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