Australian public education is free, compulsory and secular. Or at least that was the intention of the early colonial rulers whose Public Instruction Acts of the 1880s decreed such to be the case.
Yet it was revealed recently in the South Australian daily paper The Advertiser that thousands of parents have been prosecuted for failing to pay public school fees this year. In fact, 271 parents had been issued arrest warrants for failing to appear in court over the matter.
Arrest warrants? For failure to pay fees in a supposedly free system??!!
An amendment to the SA Education Act in 2001 gave legal force to a “materials and services charge” and brought the era of free public education to an end. The Act defined a standard sum to be indexed annually against the CPI as the minimum fee to be charged for public school attendance. For 2012 the standard sum is $211 for primary school and $281 for secondary school.
However, the changes to the Act also allowed a school to increase the standard sum providing the change was approved by a vote of all those who would be liable for the greater amount if approved. Very few public schools only charge the standard sum, for example, Brighton High’s school fee is $920.
The higher fee is known as the prescribed sum and is legally recoverable from all but School Card holders.
To “hold” a School Card a parent of children in either a government or non-government school must meet a gross family income test. For 2012 the gross family income for 2010-11 must be less than $34,335 for one dependent child with an additional $936 for each additional dependent child.
The state government picks up the tab for the standard sum for each School Card holder. In most cases, School Card holders will be asked to pay the difference between the School Card amount and the prescribed fee and may not realise that they are not legally bound to pay.
Some 34% of school age children go to Catholic and Independent private schools. You see, public education is not only not free, it is not really compulsory.
A religion has been made of the choice agenda, starving public schools of funds and forcing parents who want to do the right thing by their children to seek out the much better funded private alternative. Most OECD countries have private school enrolments of around 4-5%, so Australia’s more than one-third is truly testimony to the appeal of the neoliberal gospel.
The private schools are better funded not just because they enrol students from wealthy families, but because – unlike other OECD countries – government funds are used to offset the costs of private schooling! The Gonski Report is the first attempt in 30 years to address the funding inequality.
A common myth is that public schools are funded by the state and territory governments and private schools are funded by the Commonwealth.
It’s a bit more complex than that, a bit like the yin-yang symbol which is predominantly black and white, but with a bit of white in the black and vice versa.
For the three years 2009, 2010 and 2011 there were some 50,000 School Card approvals for government schools. Nearly all applications and approvals are made in Term 1 when school fees are charged to parents. The figure for 2012 is 30,000. That is a massive 40% drop in School Card numbers.
There must be a reason for the drop, and it sure as hell saves the State Government a whole lot of money! We need to know whether the decline is in public schools only, or whether it extends across the Catholic and Independent sectors as well.
School Card payments are quite a lucrative source of income for the privates (see Table).
This is just a handful of schools in the private sector that not only get a substantial part of their recurrent and capital costs paid by the federal government, but also get hundreds of thousands each from the State Government by parents prepared to pay thousands of dollars in fees to get out of the public system, but who then turn back to the public purse to get part of those fees paid in the form of a School Card!
The apparently random list above has one factor in common. All of these schools also get from the State Government a fee remission payment in excess of $60,000.
So what is a fee remission payment?
Fee remission is an interesting concept. It applies to non-School Card holders in the private school sector who are unable to pay fees or school debts due to economic hardship!
The elite Prince Alfred College claimed $48,942.17 in fee remissions from the State Government in 2011, significantly less than the schools in the table above (which are middle and low-fee as far as private fees go). But why a private college catering for the rich should get 17 cents from the public purse, let alone the other $48,000-plus is beyond me.
The public subsidy of private choice is even more apparent if we put fee remission payments next to the School Card payments. Only one of the schools is a boarding school, but Rostrevor, in the leafy green eastern suburbs, gets an additional $166,423.21 to help defray the cost of providing pastoral care to its boarders! Prince Alfred College received $244,492.17.
Of the thirteen of the schools listed in table, nine sit above the ICSEA mean of 1000 and only four are below it. In layperson’s terms, nine of the schools claiming School Card and fee remission payments from the government are in the “better off” half of all Australian schools.
Of these nine, five have fewer than 11 per cent of their students in the lowest SES quartile. (The lowest SES quartile is the bottom 25 per cent of Australian families in terms of income.) Rostrevor has only 5 per cent of students from this quartile, (or around 50 students) yet claims some $400,000 in combined School Card and fee remissions payments from the State Government.
So in addition to the funding and educational inequities revealed by the Gonski Report, we have yet another inequity – a social and legal inequity.
Parents of students in the public education system in South Australia are chased by the system to the point of arrest over non-payment of fees in a system many believe to be free (despite the legislative changes of 2001). Yet parents who reject public schooling can either get a public subsidy on their private school fees, or get the government to reimburse their private school for their fees if they claim financial hardship!
This is a little-known incentive for private schools to sign up as many students as they like in the knowledge that they will be underwritten by the governm
Mike Williss is a research officer with the Australian Education Union in South Australia.