The Prime Minister has announced a $3 billion or 37 per cent increase in funding over four years for the nation’s 1610 Catholic schools. A careful reading of his speech suggests this may be the most significant policy announcement on school funding for many years.
It is significant for Catholic schools because the announcement is based on the outcome of negotiations with the National Catholic Education Commission that results in a significant shift in the basis of support. The present system sees Catholic schools funded at a fixed percentage of educating a child at a government school. The new system brings funding for Catholic schools in line with that for other non-government schools that is based on the socio-economic status of the communities they serve. This yields an immediate benefit of $362 million over four years compared to what would be achieved under the current model.
The funds are received by Catholic education commissions in the states and territories and then distributed according to need. The Prime Minister is therefore correct in claiming that the new arrangement will "result in extra help being delivered to poorly resourced schools".
Even more significant is the way the announcement was framed. While the critics of the Australian Government’s funding point to its imbalance in favour of non-government schools, the Prime Minister chose to refer to the total of funds from all levels of government that goes to government and non-government schools.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are now in agreement on a fundamental principle of public funding for government and non-government schools. Mark Latham recently reiterated the position set out in his 2001 book What did you learn today? when he proposed that commonwealth and state contributions should be integrated to provide a single national framework for funding, with the resources to flow to schools based on need. The states have already accepted this principle in an agreement of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA).
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Jenny Macklin attacked the agreement between the Australian Government and the National Catholic Education Commission before the Prime Minister’s announcement, referring to the manner in which Catholic schools had been singled out. She indicated that Labor will "make sure that we have a schools’ policy that addresses the needs of all schools". However, it is inconceivable that Labor would seek to undo the agreement, given the political price that may be paid. Indeed, it is likely that the same agreement would have been struck if Mark Latham had been Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s announcement represents a major step forward in the achievement of a single needs-based framework for the funding of government and non-government schools that treats the contributions of commonwealth and states as a total package. It moves Australia closer to Britain, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden and The Netherlands that fund all schools on the same basis, regardless of whether the school is owned by a public or non-public authority. They do so on the basis that schools will not charge a fee for tuition. However, it is unlikely that Australia can reverse an arrangement whereby its non-government schools are able to charge fees while still receiving government funds.
The test of commitment to funding according to need, and the capacity of the community to make a contribution, will be whether all parties can reach agreement that government schools in high socio-economic communities can charge a fee for tuition. A settlement along these lines would be truly historic. It will allow governments to effectively target a higher level of public funds to the neediest of schools. This would be a major step forward in addressing endemic inequity. It may be the debate has only just begun!
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