Pyne’s Opportunistic Support of States’ Rights Has Sabotaged Gonski

The Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has re-affirmed that state and territory governments will not be required to put in additional funding for schools as agreed under the national agreements signed with the previous Labor Government. He said yesterday that he does not want to “infantilise the states”.

Last December Pyne clearly signalled to the original signatory states that they do not have to keep to the conditions they signed up for to increase school funding. He said the Government “will not be requiring them to make contributions” and whether they increase funding or not is “a matter for those sovereign jurisdictions”. The Government’s new agreement with the Queensland, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments does not require them to increase funding for schools.

This effectively sabotages the Gonski funding plan. State and territory governments will not be required to increase their funding and there is no guarantee that they will pass the Federal funding increase over the next four years. They may substitute it for their own funding or even cut their funding.

This will primarily affect the funding of government schools because almost 90 per cent of their funding comes from state/territory governments and Federal funding is delivered via the states. Government schools could end up with no additional funding or even less funding. This would completely undermine the goal of the Gonski funding plan to reduce inequity in education outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Approximately 80 per cent of disadvantaged students attend government schools.

The only certainty is that Catholic and Independent schools will get their increase because it is guaranteed under federal legislation and is delivered directly to schools or via private school system authorities.

Pyne’s justification is that he does not support conditions attached to Federal funding for schools:

I never supported the Labor Party’s attempt to essentially insert the Commonwealth in state and territory schools in their responsibilities by saying, well give you X amount of money as long as you put in Y amount of money. I don’t think that is any way to have negotiations between states and territories and the Commonwealth. [Hansard, 4 December 2013]

This is sheer humbug. The Coalition has been, and remains, more than willing to impose conditions on Federal special purpose funding for the states and territories. In fact, the Howard Government, in which both Pyne and the Prime Minister were ministers, was the first Federal Government to systematically attach conditions to federal funding for education programs.

The Howard Government presided over a huge expansion in the role of the federal government in school education covering curriculum, teaching, vocational education and training, assessment and certification, performance measurement and reporting, and specifying particular school structures, activities, and how schools should operate. Howard said he would not accept handing federal funding over to the states without conditions:

We don’t want this money disappearing into state bureaucracies and redirected. It’s not good enough just for the states to say give us more money and we’ll decide how to spend it….the idea that we should just hand more money over to the States for them to decide how it’s going to be spent – we’re not just going to accept that.

Not only did the Howard Government subject state and territory government to conditions for federal funding, but it went so far as to circumvent state and territory government control over their own schools by funding schools directly, subject to conditions. Several programs such as funding for flagpoles, school chaplains, the Australian School Innovation in Science, Technology and Mathematics program and the Investing in Our Schools building program were negotiated with schools directly.

Some of the conditions went into the minutiae of things. For example, as a condition of receiving Federal funding for flagpoles, schools were required to invite a Coalition MP to a flag-unveiling ceremony, publish a picture of the MP in the school newsletter, and erect a plaque acknowledging that it was a gift from the Federal Government.

It is very apparent that the Coalition’s new concern to remove conditions attached to federal funding is not a deep and fundamental belief – it applies only to the Gonski funding plan.

The Federal Government continues to provide financial support for a vast number of programs across many policy areas such as health care, housing, skills and workforce development, disability services and indigenous services. These are subject to federal-state agreements that define objectives, outcomes, outputs and performance indicators, other accountability requirements and specify the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and the States in the delivery of services. There has been no hint to date that the Coalition intends to release state and territory governments from the conditions attached to federal funding in these areas.

Nor has the Government sought to remove conditions attached to other education funding programs. There are many national partnership agreements on education all of which have conditions attached and there has not been any announcement that these will be removed. For example, Pyne recently announced an increase of $58 million in funding for the More Support for Students with Disabilities program. Funding for this program is subject to a number of detailed performance and accountability conditions. Yet, these conditions have not been removed.

Clearly, Pyne’s new found advocacy of states’ rights is opportunistic. It is a convenient way to subvert the Gonski funding model.

The outcome of the sabotage is clear: guaranteed funding increases for private schools but not for government schools. Perhaps, this is what Pyne intended all along. As the NSW Coalition Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, has said of Pyne : “He’s still fighting that [private versus public] war”. He is clearly on the side of private schools.

Disadvantaged students are the clear losers from this sabotage as the large majority attend government schools. They will be denied the large increase in funding promised by the Gonski model. Pyne’s sabotage of Gonski serves to protect privilege in education.

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