Government funding for public schools is in dire straits. New figures presented to Senate Estimates recently by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority show that, adjusted for inflation, governments have cut funding for public schools across Australia since 2009 while increasing funding for Catholic and Independent schools.
Total government (federal & state/territory) funding for public schools in Australia fell by 1.9 per cent ($224) per student between 2009 and 2013 while funding for Catholic schools increased by 8.1 per cent ($716) per student and by 8 per cent ($574) per Independent school student. The figures have been adjusted for inflation to allow a comparison of the quantity of human and material resources provided to schools over time.
Large declines in government funding for public schools occurred in Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory and there was a small decline in NSW but funding for Catholic and Independent schools increased. In Victoria, for example, government funding for public schools fell by $650 per student (-6 per cent) while funding for Catholic schools increased by $947 per student (11.3 per cent) and $678 per Independent school student (11.1 per cent).
Small increases in funding for public schools occurred in Queensland and South Australia but these increases were far outstripped by increases for Catholic and Independent schools. Only the ACT had similar funding increases for public, Catholic and Independent schools, although in percentage terms the increases for public schools were well below those for Catholic and Independent schools.
The decline in real government funding of public schools was due to a large reduction in state and territory government funding. State/territory government funding for public schools fell by $357 per student while funding for private schools increased by small amounts. Average State/territory funding for public schools fell by 3.5 per cent per student compared to an increase of 4.2 per cent for Catholic schools 2.7 per cent for Independent schools. Apart from the ACT, state and territory governments have failed their responsibility for public schools.
While Federal Government funding for public schools increased, the increases for Catholic and Independent schools were four to five times that for public schools: $621 per Catholic school student and $521 per Independent school student compared to $133 per public school student.
Government funding increases since 2009 have been grossly misdirected. They have favoured more advantaged students over disadvantaged students.
Between 76 and 87 per cent of low SES, Indigenous, remote area, very remote area and disability students attend public schools. Only 4 to 7 per cent attend Independent schools and 9-17 per cent attend Catholic schools. Disadvantaged students comprise 46 per cent of public school enrolments compared to only 14 per cent of Independent school enrolments and 23 per cent of Catholic school enrolments. Some 94 per cent of schools with more than 50 per cent of their enrolments from low SES families are public schools.
Government funding has provided the most advantaged schools with a huge resource advantage over public schools. In 2013, the total income from all sources for Independent schools was $18,590 per student compared to $12,576 in public schools, or nearly 50 per cent higher. The income advantage of Independent schools has increased by 30 per cent since 2009. Government funding of $7,790 per Independent school student more than accounted for the difference in total income between Independent and public schools of $6,014 per student.
Catholic schools have a slight resource advantage over public schools despite their much lower disadvantage burden. The total income of Catholic schools in 2013 was $13,118 per student compared to $12,576 in public schools. Catholic schools have moved from having a slight disadvantage to a slight advantage over public schools since 2009.
The resource advantage of private schools is compounded because they serve only a small proportion of disadvantaged students compared to public schools. Public schools have to do more with their more limited resources because they have a far heavier disadvantage burden.
Independent schools have 148 per cent of the total income available to public schools (that is, they have $148 for every $100 in public schools), but their proportion of low SES students is only 30 per cent of the public school proportion. Catholic schools have 104 per cent of the total income of public schools but their proportion of low SES students is only 50 per cent of that in public schools.
The large increases in real government funding for Catholic and Independent schools and the cuts to public schools are the legacy of pre-Gonski funding policies. The Gonski funding plan proposed a $15 billion funding increase over 6 years targeted at disadvantaged schools and students regardless of whether in public or private schools. However, it has been sabotaged by the refusal of the Federal Government and several state/territory governments to fund the final 2 years of the plan when two-thirds of the increase was due.
Disadvantaged students are four to six years in learning behind high SES students. Not only is this a huge social injustice reducing the life chances of hundreds of thousands of students, but it also has major economic and social costs for Australia. Raising the achievement of disadvantaged students generates large economic returns. It increases the general skill level of the workforce, earnings, productivity and economic growth. It also leads to better health outcomes, reduced dependency on welfare and reduced crime, all of which reduce longer term government expenditure.
The individual, social and economic benefits of reducing disadvantage in education will not be achieved without a thoroughgoing re-orientation of the distribution of school funding and a large increase in funding to support students most in need. A renewed commitment to a national school funding plan is desperately needed. This is the priority rather than devolving responsibility for school funding to the states and territories which will place public schools and disadvantaged students in even more dire straits than they are now.