In an incendiary article published on Australia Day ("Class warriors prepare to ambush private schools", The Australian, 26/1/2011), Janet Albrechtsen shared her premonition that education unions are about to unleash - in the name of better funding for public schools - a malign campaign of misinformation and class warfare . That the onslaught has yet to begin - and therefore, just possibly may never eventuate - evidently did not deter Albrechtsen from issuing her condemnation.
While the Oz scribe is perhaps given to more than her fair share of combative opining, it would be surprising if the issue of schools funding does not cause a lot of heat in 2011. After all, the public-private divide in education gives rise to numerous controversial questions about fairness and equity. The Gonski Review, commissioned in 2010 by then Education Minister Gillard and due to report later this year, is bound to bring to a head differences over some fairly fundamental matters.
In one corner, public education advocates charge the current funding arrangements - introduced by the Howard Government in 2001 - with gross inequity. The Howard system nominally distributes funds on the basis of the socio-economic status (SES) of a school’s student population. Depending on their SES ranking, private schools receive somewhere between 15 and 70% of the cost of educating a student in a state school, for each student they enrol.
In reality, there is only a loose relationship between the SES of a school’s student population and the funding it receives. Firstly, the Howard Government’s “no-losers” guarantee - hitherto maintained by Labor - means that no school loses funds, in real terms, even if its SES rating dictates that it should. According to Marilyn Harrington of the Parliamentary Library, as of January 1 2010 only 52% of non-government schools were funded according to their SES score . Secondly, there is significant room for error in the measurement of SES. As Sydney Morning Herald education editor, Anna Patty, pointed out: “... it uses census data to measure the average wealth of families in the areas where they live. This has drawn criticism of the funding for schools such as Kings, which draws some of its students from wealthy farming families, even if they live in relatively poor areas.”
So what is the ultimate result of current arrangements? The average total expenditure, private and public, per student is $10,723 in government schools, $10,399 in catholic schools and $15,147 per student in independent schools. So the basic argument from equity is that government should take some of the funds it currently provides to independent schools and reallocate it to public schools and poor catholic schools. Equity, in this sense, would involve each young Australian receiving a similarly resourced education, taking into account both public and private sources of funding.
This is simplistic though in that it assumes that all students require the same level of resourcing whereas this is patently not the case. Students with disabilities and learning difficulties, Indigenous students, ESL students and students from low-SES backgrounds, amongst others, face obstacles that cannot generally be overcome without significant additional resourcing.
When we account for the fact that the overwhelming majority of educationally disadvantaged students attend public schools, we arrive at the fundamental criticism of current funding arrangements. As public education advocate, Trevor Cobbold, puts it; “The issue at stake here is whether we continue to provide huge amounts of taxpayer funds to the wealthiest schools and families in Australia, while the most disadvantaged students are denied the resources they need to get an adequate education.”
The problem, to borrow Julia Gillard’s phrase, is that demography does determine destiny - and funding arrangements only exacerbate the problem. Commenting on the 2009 results from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, said; “… one of the things that this study shows is again there are big gaps between our Indigenous and non-Indigenous students; big gaps between our lowest and highest socio-economic levels. These gaps are the equivalent of more than two years of school.”
To reverse this sad situation, greater funds need to be allocated to the public schools that disadvantaged students predominately attend. It’s also necessary for Government to use public funding as leverage to require non-government systems to lower their fees and end the enrolment practices that prevent underprivileged students attending their schools. If managed well this might be achieved with co-operation from non-government schools. No lesser figure than Cardinal George Pell has lamented that 69% of the poorest third of Catholics are educated at public schools .
In reality, the labels "private school" and "non-government school" are misnomers. In Australia we only have public education and public-private education. The catholic system is up to 80% government funded and so-called independent schools are one-third state funded. The fundamental question the Government will face when it responds to the Gonski review is whether it is prepared to impose a quid pro quo on the "public-private schools" in which they take on responsibilities to the whole community in return for funding from the whole community.
Greater equity and greater fairness between the systems could be achieved through two initiatives. Firstly, students who face educational disadvantage should receive appropriate additional funding that follows them wherever they receive their schooling. The second initiative, qualified by the first, would calibrate funding of private schools so it effectively makes up the difference between the level of private fees and the average cost of educating a student in a state school. This is illustrated in table 1 where, taking the annual cost of a state education as $10,000, a private school that charges fees of $7000 a year receives $3000 of government funding annually. This would have the beneficial effect of incentivising private schools to reduce their fees, thus making them more inclusive and enhancing choice and equity. However, table 1 also clearly reveals some problems with this approach.