School funding should be a central issue in the Tasmanian election campaign. The latest school funding figures show that successive Tasmanian governments have slashed funding for public schools in recent years. Both Labor and Liberal governments in Tasmania took advantage of increased Commonwealth Government funding for public schools to cut their own funding, while funding for private schools was boosted by the Commonwealth Government.
Since 2009-10, total government funding (Commonwealth and state – adjusted for inflation) in Tasmanian public schools increased by only $52 per student while funding for private schools increased by $1556 per student [see Chart 1 below]. This huge disparity was due to a big increase in Commonwealth funding for private schools of $1468 per student and a cut in Tasmanian Government funding for public schools of $842 per student. An increase in Commonwealth funding for public schools of $894 per student was almost completely offset by a cut of $842 per student by state governments.
Tasmanian Government funding of public schools was cut by both the previous Labor Government and the current Liberal Government. The Labor Government cut funding for public schools by $422 per student over the four years of 2009-10 to 2013-14 while the Liberal Government cut funding by $420 per student in just two years from 2013-14 to 2015-16 [Chart 2].
These cuts almost completely offset Commonwealth funding increases during both periods of government. As a result, total government funding (Commonwealth and state) for public schools increased by only $38 per student under the Labor Government and by $13 per student under the Liberal Government compared to increases for private schools of $923 and $632 per student in the respective periods.
Total government funding increases for private schools far outstripped the negligible overall increases in public school funding in both periods. Total government funding for private schools increased by $923 per student between 2009-10 and 2013-14 and by $632 per student in the two years between 2013-14 and 2015-16.
The funding figures cited above are based on figures published in the 2018 Report on Government Services published by the Productivity Commission. The figures for public schools have been adjusted to exclude the user cost of capital, depreciation, payroll tax and school transport. These items are not included in the funding figures for private schools published by the Commission and their inclusion in public school funding means that it is over-estimated in comparison with private schools. They accounted for 24% of Tasmanian Government funding for public schools in 2015-16 and their increase accounted for 38% of the nominal increase in state funding between 2009-10 and 2015-16.
The cuts to public school funding by successive Tasmanian governments is a major factor behind the continuing poor results in Tasmanian schools and the large achievement gap between rich and poor. There was no real increase in overall funding for public schools since 2009-10 to address the high levels of disadvantage in education in the state.
The results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 show that Tasmania has the worst school results in Australia with high proportions of students not achieving international minimum standards. Tasmanian students had the lowest average results in mathematics and science in Australia and the equal lowest results in reading. One-quarter to one-third of Tasmanian students are below international minimum standards.
The NAPLAN results for 2017 show that low socio-economic status (SES) and Indigenous students in Tasmania are up to four years behind their high SES peers. Large proportions do not achieve expected minimum national standards. For example, 40% of low SES and Indigenous Year 9 students did not achieve the national writing standard and 20% did not achieve the reading standard.
Only 54% of low SES students in Tasmania achieved a Year 12 Certificate in 2016, the lowest of any state except the Northern Territory and well below the Australian average of 76% for all students.
The large majority of disadvantaged students in Tasmania are enrolled in public schools. About 85% of low SES and Indigenous students attend public schools. The funding cuts to public schools mean that successive state governments abandoned efforts to improve education outcomes for these students. The long neglect of the state’s most vulnerable students is an appalling injustice. It also undermines future economic prosperity because continued low education outcomes reduce workforce participation, productivity and economic growth.
Political parties contesting the Tasmanian election should give priority to increasing funding for public schools to address the high level of disadvantage in education. Continued under-resourcing of Tasmanian public schools will make it virtually impossible to reduce the high proportion of disadvantaged students not achieving expected standards and reduce the very large achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Trevor CobboldCharts on School Funding in Tasmania