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Public school underspending - why blame the Commonwealth?

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 21 February 2024

Recently Green Senators failed to pass their Australian Education Amendment (Save Our Public Schools) Bill to increase the Commonwealth's share of the Gonski Student Resource Standard (SRS) for public schools from its current 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

Such exhortations ignore that it is the states and territories that are constitutionally responsible for all schools, run the public school system with 65 per cent of all students, and it is they, not the Commonwealth, that have been the real laggards in school spending especially for their own public schools.

Blaming the Commonwealth allows the states and territories to avoid taking responsibility for this neglect and confuses who should be held accountable for how much we spend on education and its effectiveness.


The facts are that during the last two decades the states and territories have been reducing their proportionate share of government funding to both public and non-government schools.

Between 2005-6 and 2014-15 Commonwealth funding to all schools rose by 58.2 per cent while the states' increases were just 18 per cent. While Commonwealth support for public schools increased by 72 per cent, for the states it was only 9.4 per cent.

More concerning, following the 2017 amendments to the Australian Education Act that provided for a fairer and more transparent system, and massive federal funding increases, the states have failed to meet their legislated obligations.

For instance, under the new legislation the states were to increase their spending to meet 80 per cent of the required funding for Gonski School Resource Standard for public schools by 2023. The Commonwealth would increase its share to 20 per cent.

Arguing the required increases were too onerous, the states had the target reduced to 75 per cent of the SRS, but by 2023 only three states achieved this new reduced target (WA, ACT and SA). The rest got extensions – NSW by 2025, Tasmania in 2027, Victoria in 2028, and Queensland by time of the Brisbane 2032 Olympics.

Meanwhile the Commonwealth met its obligations and all public school systems now receive their 20 per cent share of the SRS. While the Commonwealth's funding increases are legislated and must be implemented (including indexation arrangements for inflation), state education expenditure is part of the annual budget cycle and politically driven.


Even when all the states and territories reach the 75 per cent they will be 5 per cent below the original 80 per cent target so many state schools will remain underfunded compared to the required SRS.

Yet no mention is made of this huge gap by the Greens, state teacher unions, or principal associations.

Nor is there any mention that in the past decade (2011-12 to 2020-21) state government funding for public schools has increased in real terms by around 2-3 per cent per annum, whilst Commonwealth funding for public schools rose by around 4-6 per cent per annum.

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This article was first published on Policy Insights.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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