We Need to Get Gonski Back on Track

The Gonski Report on School Funding was published 10 years ago this month. It promised much to increase equity in education. However, its promise was undermined by fundamental flaws in Labor’s new model and trashed by Coalition governments.

The Gonski Report was a watershed in the history of school funding in Australia. It dramatically changed the terms of the debate about school funding in Australia by putting equity in education at the centre of education policy.

It adopted far reaching equity objectives. It proposed a goal of a minimum level of education for all students which it set at Year 12 or its equivalent and the social equity goal that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. The latter meant, for example, that students from low socio-economic status (SES) families should achieve similar outcomes to high SES students.

The Report designed a funding model that would overturn decades of funding policies directed at increasing choice and supporting privilege in education. Instead, it directed funding increases to those most in need. It recommended increased funding of $5 billion a year, the large part of which would go to public schools because they enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students.

The late Professor Jack Keating said that “It contains the most impressive and ambitious national proposals on school funding since the Karmel report” of 1973.

Ten years later, this judgement stands. The legacy of the Report is enduring as its guiding principles provide the foundation to build an education system to improve equity in education.

The problem is that is that its implementation went off the rails because of fundamental flaws in Labor’s funding model and because it was sabotaged by the Abbott and Turnbull governments. The result was that the biggest funding increases went to the school sectors least in need. Gonski didn’t fail, governments failed Gonski and disadvantaged students.

Labor’s funding model was not a fully needs-based model. It was only partially needs-based. It included special deals negotiated with the Catholic Church and private school organisations that gave more funding to private schools than warranted on a strictly needs-base.

At the outset, Gillard guaranteed that no school would lose a dollar under the new funding model. One of the Gonski panel members, Ken Boston, said “this was an albatross around the neck of the Gonski panel”. However, it was not enough for private school organisations. Under pressure from them, Gillard replaced it with “every school would get an increase” and that is what happened without regard to need.

Gillard also made a secret deal with Cardinal Pell to delay introduction of the new model until 2014 to give the Catholic Church “a clear moment of political fightback if they wanted it”. This together with the postponement of the large part of the promised $10 billion increase in Commonwealth funding to the last two years of the six-year phase-in made the plan hostage to a change of government. It proved fatal.

Active sabotage began with the Abbott government. It abandoned the $7.5 billion funding increase planned for last two years of the plan. It also immediately abandoned the agreement that required the states increase their funding which resulted in another loss of about $5 billion in state funding.

The Turnbull government in turn destroyed the concept of an integrated national funding model by limiting the Commonwealth role in school funding. It arbitrarily limited the Commonwealth role in funding public schools to 20 per cent of their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).

The outcome is a huge resource gap between public and private schools that increased over the past decade. In 2019, income per student in Independent schools was over 50 per cent higher than for public schools while Catholic school income is over 10 per cent higher than for public schools.

Last year, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said that the Catholic system had “never had it so good”. The same is true for Independent schools, but they are more careful to keep quiet about it.

The disparities in income levels between public and private schools translate into large differences in the availability of human and material resources. OECD data reveal that public schools face greater teacher shortages, have far more teachers teaching out-of-field, have fewer educational materials and poorer quality infrastructure than do private schools.

The resource gap will widen over the rest of the decade to 2029 because of special deals for private schools by the Morrison government and because the Commonwealth-State bilateral funding agreements allow the states to continue to massively under-fund public schools.

The special deals for private schools by the Morrison government ensure that private schools will be funded at over 100 per cent of their SRS in all states except the Northern Territory over the rest of the decade. The cumulative over-funding of private schools by the Commonwealth and state governments from 2019-2029 will amount to over $5 billion.

The Commonwealth-State bilateral funding agreements include special allowances for the states to include expenditures in their SRS shares for public schools that are specifically excluded from the estimation of the SRS. These allowances result in massive under-funding of public schools.

The maximum state shares of the SRS of public schools by 2029 will only be 71 per cent or less in all states except the ACT. The combined Commonwealth-state shares of the SRS of public schools will only be 91 per cent or less by 2029. The cumulative under-funding of public schools from 2019-2029 will amount to about $74 billion.

We have to get Gonski back on track. The basic principles of the Gonski funding model are sound and remain in the legislation. They provide the foundation to develop a Gonski Plus funding model that will deliver a large increase in needs-based funding for public schools and eliminate over-funding of private schools.

The Commonwealth Government has a key role in ensuring national equity in funding and resourcing. Labor must step up for public schools in this election campaign. Labor’s Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek, told the Geelong Advertiser last December that “the inequity at the heart of our funding system absolutely has to change”. She said that every public school student should get 100 per cent of their SRS. She re-affirmed this recently in The Guardian.

This should be the central feature of Labor’s school funding election platform. There can be no reneging on this or it will be seen as a betrayal of public schools. A key policy should be to revise the Commonwealth-state funding agreements to fund public schools to 100 per cent of their SRS.

A start must be made to reducing the vast over-funding of private schools. There should be an immediate freeze on taxpayer funding for wealthy private schools.

We need to start a national dialogue on increasing equity in school resourcing. If elected, Labor should call a national education summit in 2022 to get Gonski back on track and reduce the enormous resource disparity between public and private schools. All schools should be funded solely on a needs-basis to increase social equity in school outcomes.

This article was originally published on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog.

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