The Victorian ALP Government has betrayed the basic principle of the Gonski funding model – that future increases in government funding for private schools should be determined by need. Instead, the Government has legislated to ensure that funding increases for public schools will automatically flow on in part to private schools without regard to need.
A Bill passed by the Victorian Parliament last week enacts previous administrative arrangements for a minimum of 25 per cent of state government funding for public schools to be allocated to the private school sector. In presenting the Bill, the Education Minister, James Merlino, told the Parliament:
The bill will secure recurrent funding for non-government schools by amending the ETR (Education and Training Reform) Act to expressly legislate the minimum linkage percentage of 25 per cent to be allocated to the non-government schools sector. This is to ensure that growth in per student funding for government schools will also flow through to growth in state funding for non-government schools, which only occurs through administrative arrangements at present.
The Government has made an explicit policy choice to maintain the link between private school funding and public school costs despite its rejection by the Gonski report on school funding in Australia. The Gonski report said that linking funding of private schools to public school funding is a “backward-looking approach” that “lacks a convincing educational rationale” [pp. 61, 62]. The Victorian Government’s 25 per cent funding link is an arbitrary figure that has no education rationale and simply reflects a long-standing demand by private school organisations for more government funding.
The Gonski report also said that retaining the link to public school costs as a centrepiece of school funding does not satisfy the principle that school resourcing should reflect the nature of the educational challenges facing a system or school. It said that it should be replaced by a new set of arrangements.
What is needed is a more sophisticated resource benchmark that can reflect the full spectrum of cost levels from the lesser cost associated with a school experiencing minimal disadvantage….through to a school with compounded or concentrated disadvantage and costs. 
In maintaining the link between state funding of private and public schools, the Government has clearly rejected the principle of needs-based funding adopted by the previous Federal Labor Government and incorporated in the National Education Reform Agreement signed by the Napthine government. Under the Agreement, the Victorian Government committed to implementing needs-based funding arrangements. However, the new legislation ensures that state government funding of private schools will be determined not by need in the private school sector but by need in the public sector, which has much greater needs than the private sector.
Public schools in Victoria enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students. In 2013, public schools enrolled 79 per cent of low SES students, 86 per cent of Indigenous students, 98 per cent of remote area students and 75 per cent of disability students. These students have much lower literacy and numeracy results than advantaged students.
Under the Victorian Government’s legislation, 25 per cent of any funding increases directed at improving learning outcomes for these students will automatically flow on to private schools without regard to their needs. Part of it will automatically flow on to private schools even if they do not enrol any disadvantaged students, enrol a much lower proportion than in public schools or if they reduce their enrolment of these students. This is because the state Financial Assistance Model includes a per capita grant to all private schools irrespective of need.
Even the wealthiest schools in the state will benefit, including Geelong Grammar, Scotch College, Melbourne Grammar, Lauriston, Fintona, Korowa, MLC, Camberwell Grammar, Trinity Grammar, and Brighton Grammar. Yet all these elite schools enrol no or very few disadvantaged students. Some have no low SES or Indigenous students, others have only one or two per cent of their enrolments comprised of these students whereas they account for an average of 30 per cent of enrolments in Victorian public schools, and over 50 per cent in many. It is scandalous that these wealthy private schools with a total income of $25,000-$30,000 per student should benefit from increased funding for disadvantaged students in public schools.
The new Victorian Government has shown itself to be more concerned about appeasing the private school lobby than fully implementing the Gonski funding principles. It has shown less gumption and considerably less commitment to the Gonski principles than the Coalition Government in NSW which has repealed the link between private and public school funding. In his second reading speech on the legislation amendments to guarantee that NSW meet its commitments to the National Education Reform Agreement, the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said:
…our funding mechanisms for both government and non-government schools will move to be consistent with the Schooling Resource Standard. This model provides for a single, consistent resource standard against which need is assessed for government and non-government schools. It is designed to be more objective, more effective and fairer.
The Minister’s representative in the NSW Legislative Council, John Ajaka, was even more explicit.
The current requirement that per capita grants to non-government schools are tied to the average cost of educating government school children will be removed from the Act. This provision is not consistent with an enhanced, needs-based funding model.
Per capita funding to non-government schools will continue but, over time, they will be provided according to an improved, needs-based funding mechanism.
There we have it. The NSW Coalition government has shown more commitment to needs-based funding for private schools than the new Victorian Labor Government. It is very revealing that the first legislative act of the new government in education is to secure funding arrangements for private schools that reject the Gonski needs-based funding principle. It says something about its school funding priorities.
The Greens member of the Victorian Legislative Council, Sue Pennicuik, moved amendments to include relevant clauses of the NSW legislation but they were defeated by an unholy alliance of Labor and Liberal/National members. The Education Minister even had the gall to accuse Pennicuik of opposing funding for disadvantaged students because she voted against the 25 per cent funding benchmark. The hypocrisy is astounding.
The amendments to the Education Act proposed by the Labor Government also include a School Policy and Funding Advisory Council to advise the Minister about regulatory, policy and funding issues affecting both public and private schools. The Council will comprise the Secretary of the Education Department, a representative of the Catholic Education Commission; a representative of Independent Schools Victoria; and a representative of public schools who is employed in the Department.
Can you believe this? Parents and teachers/principals in public schools have no independent representation in a council to advise on regulatory, policy and funding issues for public schools (and private schools), yet Catholic and Independent schools have a direct voice on these matters. It is outrageous, especially coming from a Labor Government.
Even more outrageous is the fact that the ALP Government has acted quickly to guarantee its future funding of private schools, but has failed to guarantee its future funding of public schools. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, total government (Federal and state) of public schools in Victoria, adjusted for inflation, fell by two per cent while funding for private schools increased by 18.5 per cent.
Both Federal and state government increases in funding of private schools have far outstripped that of public schools. Federal government funding per student in Victorian private schools increased by 20 per cent between 2008-09 and 2012-13 compared to only ten per cent for public schools. Funding for private schools under the previous state Labor and Coalition governments increased by 13 per cent but funding for public schools fell by four per cent.
One might have thought that the new Andrews Government would have been more concerned reversing this trend rather than further guaranteeing funding for private schools. But, this is obviously not the case. The new legislation demonstrates that its priority is to ensure the funding of private schools, even to the extent of giving private school organisations influence over regulatory and funding decisions about public schools. The Government has not even given a commitment to the funding increases promised under the National Education Reform Agreement which would deliver much-needed large increases in funding to public schools.
The Victorian Government must be confronted by public school parent, teacher and principal organisations to address the recurrent funding needs of public schools. It must commit to large funding increases for disadvantaged students, the large majority of whom are in public schools. It should follow the NSW Coalition government in guaranteeing the funding increases planned under the National Education Reform Agreement, especially those in the last two years of the agreement. It should also commit to increasing funding loadings for disadvantaged students because the current loadings are much too low to bridge the large achievement gaps between rich and poor in Victoria.