Everyone’s heard of the Mummy Wars. The debate that flies out of the box like a bat out of hell every time some dry academic study appears about centre-based childcare. Behind all the shouting about sample size, confidence levels and expert bias is a shrillness that can only come from women who feel accused of being “bad” mummies, or are defending their status as “good” mummies.
We don’t acknowledge it, but debates about education funding may be similar. Seemingly about funding figures drawn from Federal and State budget papers and high-minded disagreements about the role of the market in education or education in democracy, the real source of the heat and light is far more primal: our desperate desire to be seen as good parents. The proof is in the irrationality, wrong-headedness or sheer martyred silliness of the responses made to educators, parents, scholars and politicians who speak about the undeniable - and worsening - funding inequities between public and private schools. Responses that demonise those who speak out as dishonest, envious or (our personal favourite) unethical.
So, let’s see how the facts stack up.
The most common response to complaints about the grossly unfair way the Feds fund schools is to insist that the public system is the responsibility of the states. But what has this to do with the moral problem that 70 per cent of Federal Government funds go to support the 32 per cent of our kids who attend private schools? After all, a wrong is a wrong, no matter what gets done afterwards to right it. It is also unclear how adding in the state contribution undermines the fact that the public system is under-funded given the result of such mathematics still leaves some private school students with 62 per cent more resources devoted to their education than the average student in a public school. A financial advantage - it must be noted - that the federal government omits to take account of when it doles out funds to schools.
Questionable claims are also made by the “yes, but not us” brigade: various officialdom from the Catholic schools who - usually as warm-up for yet another round of successful federal alms collecting - imply that their good work among the underprivileged entitles them to ever-larger shares of the federal and state funding pie.
Well, maybe, but a new report by Barbara Preston has found that while 40 per cent of students in government schools are from low income families, this figure is only 25 per cent in Catholic schools (a figure not dissimilar to the 22 per cent of kids from low income families in other private schools). According to Preston, the difference is even greater for those students in very low income families, roughly twice as many of whom can be found in government schools, as compared to Catholic or other private schools.
And we mustn’t forget the “I-work-five-jobs-and-budget carefully-and-live-in-a-shoe-box-in-middle-of-the-road-while-cleaning-toilets” parental martyrs. Terrified of any changes to government policy that would increase fees, this group defends the existing carve-up of federal funds despite the fact that - were the public system funded properly - such extreme sacrifice would be unnecessary. Worse, they ignore the fact that even if they are the winners in the “who is the best parent stakes”, allowing this victory to compromise the quality of education available in public schools does nothing more than punish the most disadvantaged kids for the supposed sins of their parents.
We hope that the Australian debate about education funding has not yet reached the stage where any participant truly believes that only the children of “good” parents merit a decent education.
And last, but not least, is the non-sensical claim that parents who pull their kids from the public system are doing it a favour, as taxpayers couldn’t afford the price tag of quality education for all Australian kids, anyway. The reality is that no supporter of public education has ever wanted or asked for relief from the cost of providing a first rate education for our young. Frankly, we can’t think of a better way to spend money. As well, we know that when the last middle class family finally leaves the system, Australia will have become the first democracy to settle for a public education system that provides - in the words of Prime Minister John Howard - a “reasonable safety net” for the poor.
So where do we go from here? First we need to be frank - with ourselves and with others - about why the subject of school funding gets us so hot under the collar. Perhaps just knowing that much of the passion, invective and downright nastyness around this debate is driven by our very human and understandable anxiety about what kind of parents we are will help us all to calm down. Maybe then we’ll be in a position to have a reasoned and effective discussion about what - when it comes to education - is really best for all Australian children. Even those without perfect parents.
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