Does the Coalition Want to Abolish Free Public Education?

Is the Coalition considering abolishing free public education by the introduction of means-tested fees in government schools? This is a key question arising from a widely-reported speech in London last month by Federal Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, about ending the age of entitlement.

Hockey said that the age of entitlement is over and that Australia has to re-think its approach to universal free services. He called for a reduction in universal free services and proposed a co-payment by users of these services. He cited the example of health services in Australia which are partly funded through compulsory levies paid to either government or private health insurers.

Interviewed about his speech on the ABC’s Lateline (18 April 2012), Hockey said that the Coalition will be looking closely at a whole range of entitlements. He said that Australia must reduce the size of government.

Hockey’s speech raises the spectre of fees in government schools. He included education as part of the entitlement system that he says should be wound back. Although he did not say so explicitly, the logical implication of his argument is that universal free public education should be abolished and means-tested fees introduced in government schools.

Influential advisors of the Liberal Party have proposed just this.

Gerard Henderson, a former chief-of-staff for John Howard and executive director of the Sydney Institute which the Liberal Party draws on for policy advice, recently specifically advocated means-tested fees in government schools. He even used the same private health insurance example as Hockey.

John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs and former executive director of the Liberal Party’s Menzies Research Centre, says that education should not be free in government schools and it is a notion “whose time has passed”. He says free public education is “middle class welfare”.

The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), from which the Liberal Party also draws policy initiatives, has said that compulsory fees in government schools in high income areas “is not an inherently bad idea”, although it does fear it is “political poison”.

Andrew Norton, former education advisor to David Kemp as Federal Education Minister in the Howard Government and former research fellow at CIS now at the Grattan Institute, also advocates abolishing free government school education.

A notable feature of Hockey’s speech is that it was given major billing at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. The Institute is the leading free market economics think tank in the UK. It advocates a free market in education and sees for-profit schools as the future. One of its writers has called for a global chain of Tesco schools.

There is clearly a push for an end to free education in circles around the Liberal Party. Hockey’s speech is grounded in a political and economic philosophy which rejects universal provision of government services and advocates extreme free market approaches to public policy issues. While Hockey does not specifically target public education in his speech, the implication for free education is clear.

The recently published Gonski report on school funding clearly rejects the proposition that free public education should be means-tested:

The government sector is required to provide access to a place for all young people whose parents wish them to attend a government school and has less scope to deny entry or exclude some students than non-government schools. It is important for the future of Australian schooling that the government sector continues to perform the role of a universal provider of high-quality education which is potentially open to all. This has significant implications for funding and means that, in practice, funding for government schools from fees cannot be significant or compulsory. [p.176]

It said that government schools should “…be universally accessible to all students regardless of parental financial capacity to contribute towards the cost of schooling” [p. 176].

The consequences of government school fees would be catastrophic. Once the principle of free education is breached for some, it can be breached for others. Governments under budgetary pressures readily increase and extend fees for public services. It would create divisions between those who pay and those who do not and make it easier for governments to fiddle with the threshold and make more and more families pay.

Fees would undermine equal access for all to a quality education. They can be used to exclude those who do not pay, or to provide them with a lower quality of education. They could also drive more families into private schools, thereby increasing social segregation in schools and greater inequity in education.

If followed through, means-tested fees would turn public education into a welfare scheme for the poor rather than a system designed to provide a high quality common schooling for all which promotes social integration of children from different classes, races and religions. It would be to discard the democratic and social purposes of public education.

In contrast to Hockey’s denunciation of entitlements, the Coalition is firmly attached to entitlements to education funding for the rich. It even says it will extend them.

Hockey admits that the Coalition fuelled the entitlement system when in government. In fact, it created an entitlement for the rich when it introduced the current SES funding model for private schools which delivered huge windfall gains to many of the wealthiest schools in Australia. It also introduced the “no losers” guarantee which has protected and extended these windfall gains for over 10 years.

About 140 exclusive private schools who serve the richest families in the country will get over $660 million in Federal funding this year. They also get state government funding.

Geelong Grammar, the most expensive school in Australia, will get $5.2 million in Federal Government funding this year plus about $1 million from the Victorian Government. Yet, 73% of its students come from families in the top SES quartile. Its school fees for Years 11 & 12 are $30,820 per student this year.

Sydney Grammar is the most expensive school in NSW. It will get nearly $4 million in Federal funding and about $2 million in state government funding this year. Nearly 90% of its students come from the top SES quartile and its Year 12 fees for this year are $27,324 per student.

Why the most expensive and privileged private schools in the country should each get $6 million a year in government funding defies comprehension.

In addition, 1075 private schools get $615 million a year more than they are entitled to according to their officially assessed SES score. They are over-funded according to the SES funding model’s own funding criteria. These are the so-called “funding maintained” schools that benefit from the “no losers” guarantee. All this funding goes to medium and high income private schools. None of it goes to low income private schools.

Together, Federal government funding for exclusive private schools and the over-funding of higher income private schools cost the taxpayer about $1.2 billion a year.

Despite Hockey’s admonition about entitlements, the Coalition says that the schools are entitled to this largesse. The shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, defends it, saying that “every child has a basic minimum entitlement for Government support” [Submission to Gonski Review of School Funding, March 2011]. He told the Parliament in July last year that the Coalition supports the over-funding for private schools (called funding maintained schools) as part of the SES funding model.

Tony Abbott also supports this entitlement. He says “Every Australian child is entitled to government assistance towards his or her education” [The Australian, 5 January 2010].  

And, far from winding back this entitlement of the well-off, the Coalition wants to extend it. At the last election, it promised a 50% tax rebate on school fees. It is estimated to cost $1 billion a year. Daily Telegraph columnist, Maralyn Parker, called it “the most blatant offer of middle class welfare I have seen in any election” [21 July 2010]. Christopher Pyne re-affirmed the policy in February this year. 

While it wants to protect and extend the entitlements of the well-off, the Coalition also says it will strip away some of the funding going to disadvantaged students and schools.

At the last election, it said it would make savings of $750 million in the Smarter Schools national partnerships, including taking $330 million from the Low SES School Communities program. This reduction would primarily impact on low SES government schools.

This is the most blatant hypocrisy. For the Coalition, it appears that entitlements for the well-off are to be protected and extended. It is entitlements for the poor that have to be wound back.

The entitlement argument for government funding of private schools serves to support advantage and privilege. It provides an added resource advantage for well-off families. It exacerbates the resource advantage of higher income private schools over schools which serve disadvantaged communities. It ensures that high SES students continue to get much better results than low SES students. It compounds social inequality in education.

The Gonski report, and much other research, shows a huge achievement gap between rich and poor in Australia’s schools. Low SES students are two to three years behind their high SES peers at age 15. The gap between students in high SES and low SES schools is even larger – three to four years. Some 22 to 28% of low SES students do not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 4-5% of high SES students.

The report shows that reducing these gaps is the most fundamental challenge facing Australia’s education system. It recommended an additional $5 billion to reduce disadvantage and improve equity in education. Removing government funding for exclusive private schools and the over-funding of higher income private schools would be a good down-payment. It would provide over one-fifth of the funding recommended by the report.

Pyne opposes abolishing the SES funding model and any funding reductions for exclusive private schools (ABC AM, 22 February 2012). He rejects what he labels as “means-testing of private schools”, thus ensuring that the rich continue to get millions in government funding. He wants continued full indexation of funding maintained schools, thus ensuring that their massive over-funding is maintained. He specifically rejects reducing the large achievement gap between rich and poor as the main focus for education policy.

The Coalition is fundamentally committed to protecting entitlements to education funding for the rich in private schools. The threat posed by Hockey’s speech is to a universal public education system that provides for all-comers without discrimination and without regard to capacity to pay. The implication of his argument is that education would everywhere be subject to capacity to pay which, as elsewhere, leads to reduced quality of service for the poor, greater social segregation in provision and more inequality in outcomes. 

The Coalition must come clean on education funding in the light of Hockey’s speech. Is it considering introducing means-tested fees in government schools?

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