The following is the conclusion of a Working Paper published by Save Our Schools on the sabotage of the Gonski funding model by the Coalition Government. The paper can be downloaded below.
Comments on the paper are invited. Notification of issues not covered and mistakes of fact, analysis and interpretation will be appreciated. Please excuse any remaining typos and repetitions. Comments can be sent to the Save Our Schools email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Coalition Government set out to sabotage the Gonksi funding model right from the start. It was always opposed to the new approach and as soon as it took office in 2013, it proposed to reduce the level of Commonwealth funding over the next four years and introduce a new funding model from 2015. However, it was forced to back down. Nevertheless, it succeeded in removing two key foundation features of the Gonski model among other changes and attempted to undermine equity funding.
First, it refused to commit to the full Commonwealth funding increase of $10.3 billion over the next six years promised under Labor’s plan. It only committed to Labor’s increase of $2.8 billion over four years. This left a funding shortfall of $7.5 billion, the major share of which would have gone to public schools.
Second, it stopped the implementation of a national funding model. This was reflected in several decisions. On taking office, the Abbott Government immediately released state governments from their obligation to increase their own funding as a condition of Commonwealth funding. They were free to decide whether to increase their funding, substitute Commonwealth funding for their own funding or cut their funding. This threatened the further loss of $5.6 billion in state funding over the next six years, the very large part of which also would have gone to public schools. The states took the opportunity to continue to cut their funding (adjusted for inflation) to public schools.
The Coalition’s abandonment of a national approach to school funding was also reflected in its refusal to give an opportunity for non-signatory governments to join the national funding agreement. It demonstrated that the Coalition did not want a national funding model. It had particular implications for public schools because non-participating governments were not required to increase their funding for public schools or to implement a Gonski-type funding formula.
The Government also dismissed the equity rationale behind the Gonski model and attempted to reduce the focus on equity by a secret review on whether the SES funding loading was needed. Removal of the loadings would have further undermined the resourcing of public schools because over 80 per cent of low SES students attended public schools and over 90 per cent of disadvantaged schools were public schools. The attempt failed after it was exposed by public school organisations and the loading remained intact.
The Turnbull Government continued undermining the Gonski model with false claims about its unfairness, the extent of past funding increases and its likely impact on education outcomes. It said that it would introduce a simpler model to apply from 2018. It conceded that a small number of wealthy private schools were over-funded and could have their funding reduced under new arrangements. However, this concession ignored the vast over-funding of over 1,700 private schools under special deals instituted by the Howard Government and the previous Labor Government.
Both the Abbott and Turnbull governments floated the idea of transferring responsibility for school education to the states and territories. In reality, this was confined to public schools. The Coalition was not prepared to leave private school funding to the states because private school organisations were totally opposed. This was another indication of the Coalition’s priority to funding private schools.
The Government’s priority was to guarantee continuing funding increases for private schools. Equity in education and ensuring adequate funding for public schools were a low priority.
The Government maintained the Coalition’s long-standing commitment to serving the interests of private schools. Both the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) and theNational Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) were concerned to maintain the Commonwealth role in funding private schools and to ensure that funding increases into the future. They differed in their approach. ISCA preferred to go back to the SES model but came to accept this was impossible in the circumstances. The NCEC broadly accepted the funding model but wanted adjustments to the funding loadings as a way of increasing funding, reduced regulatory compliance and continued autonomy in how Commonwealth funding was distributed to schools.
The other major factor behind the Government’s approach was to restrict the impact of school funding increases on the Budget. It claimed that the Gonski funding increase over the six years was unaffordable because Australia had an expenditure problem. This was a government policy choice. It chose a massive increase in defence expenditure over improving equity in education. It chose to reduce individual and business taxation while continuing tax concessions for high income and wealthy families that depleted the revenue base.
It was possible to fully fund the Gonski plan. There were several revenue sources to draw on which would have involved ensuring that high income earners and large corporations met their tax obligations to society. The fact that it chose not to do so showed that the Government was more concerned to protect the interests of the privileged in society than to improve equity in education.
The outcome of the Coalition’s sabotage of Gonski was clear: guaranteed funding increases for private schools but not for public schools. The Coalition was fully committed to fulfilling its traditional role of serving private schools with continued funding increases. Public schools were largely left to the states and they chose to cut real funding. There was no longer any guarantee that funding for disadvantaged public schools would be increased to any substantial extent.