The Tide is Turning Against Elite Private School Funding

The tide has turned on government funding for wealthy private schools. It has come under fire as never before in recent weeks.

A Herald-Sun columnist said:

Elite private schools do not deserve to continue to receive generous federal taxpayer handouts. It’s time to fund need rather than greed.
The Gillard Government must use the current school funding review to turn off the gravy train for Australia’s richest private schools.

A Daily Telegraph article said it is “a brazen case of resources greed, not education need – evidence that the education class divide is widening, with the help of governments”.

Today Tonight did a segment on increasing fury “that the gap between our poorest schools and our richest is growing thanks to government funding”. It said that “the fury over school funding is reaching boiling point”.

The Courier-Mail led off a front-page story on the launch of My School 2.0 with:

The great divide between what Australia’s richest and poorest schools spend on educating their students has now been revealed.

Editorials in The Daily Telegraph, The Herald-Sun and The Age raised concerns about inequity in school funding. For example, The Age criticised public subsidies for schools with “chauffeur-driven limousine standards” (5 March, print edition).

There is a strong case for change in government funding of schools.

There are massive achievement gaps in Australia between rich and poor. Low SES students are two to three years in learning behind high SES students. Indigenous students are three to four years behind high SES students. Remote area students are two to three years behind.

Eighty per cent or more of these students attend government schools. Yet government school expenditure is about half that of wealthy private schools. For example, Sydney Grammar had a gross income of $35,856 per student in 2009 and 92% of its students are in the top SES quartile. This compares to less than $15,000 per student in several highly disadvantaged government high schools in western Sydney which have about 70% of their students in the bottom SES quartile.

My School 2.0 has revealed that many highly disadvantaged government schools even get less government funding than more privileged private schools. Government funding for many elite schools increased by over 200% since 2001 compared to less than 70% for government schools. The facilities of disadvantaged government schools are in stark contrast to the opulence of elite schools.

The wealthiest private schools are being funded by governments at $2,000 – $5,000 per student. One rationale was to make these schools more accessible. It has proved to be a false promise. These schools have become more exclusive with government funding as they were allowed to jack up their fees.

Fee increases for elite schools have far outstripped their cost increases over the past decade. Fees increased by 90-100% since 2001 compared to cost increases of 35-50%, whatever measure of inflation is used.

The SES funding model is delivering millions of dollars in over-funding to some of the most privileged schools and families. In 2010, 40 primary and secondary schools in the wealthiest suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne were over-funded by $80 million. Their government funding was double that warranted by the funding rate for their SES score.

This over-funding is the result of the “no losers” guarantee that no school joining the SES funding scheme would be made worse off. Over 50% of private schools are not funded at their SES score rate.

While there is a case for government funding of private schools, the funding of the elite schools is beyond the pale while disadvantaged government schools struggle against the odds with inadequate funding. It is a national disgrace that millions of dollars in taxpayer funds are wasted on families least in need while those most in need miss out on an adequate education.

The current system of funding private schools must be overhauled. It is time to give priority to funding real need rather than greed.

Trevor Cobbold

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