An Open Letter to Stephen Smith


Dear Shadow Education Minister,

The new ‘dream team’ heading up the ALP have burst into the nation’s consciousness promising, among other media-friendly phrases, to be a ‘real alternative’ to the current Howard Government, rather than a mere echo. This has caused many of us to feel a wary flutter of hope. We’ve been promised similar things in the past, even if they were not so felicitously phrased but we have been bitterly disappointed.

No group is quite so wary of the promises of politicians than those of us who fight for public education. We really did think Latham was onto a good thing, at least in that area, and, despite vigorous propaganda by those with a vested interest to the contrary, have yet to see any hard evidence that the majority of voters disagreed with us. Most people with eyes in their head can see, as they walk around their own neighbourhoods, that there is something very uneven about the way we now fund different kinds of schools.

The other day a woman told me how she was shocked to return to her old, once very ordinary, private school to see they had just opened a $14 million arts centre. Thinking of the meagre resources at her own children’s little public school, she wondered what the hell was going on, echoing (oops, there’s that word again) the sentiments of many of us.

What Latham proposed, merely a redistribution of recurrent public funding from the very best resourced private schools to the very worst resourced ones, was fair and reasonable. The mainstream Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, should collectively hang their heads in shame for objecting to that policy. And how the principals of the more poorly resourced religious schools were induced to keep their mouths firmly shut about it, I cannot imagine.

However, politics is politics, and Latham imploded and we know you are never going to risk going down that road again. So, how are you going to avoid becoming a mere echo in education policy, Mr Smith? I’ve only heard one education announcement by you and your leader so far and you squibbed it, quite frankly. You made some fairly sensible noises about reducing the HECS debt for university students, and then declared yourself in favour of a national school curriculum. Julie Bishop then, quite rightly, outed you as an echo as this has been Federal Government policy for some time.

It’s a scary thing, standing up for public schools. It’s neither fashionable nor appreciated. It offends the big end of town, it risks pulling the ire of the church down on your head, and makes those parents in your own Party who choose private schools (the majority of parliamentarians) feel deeply uncomfortable. All your advisors will tell you to keep well away from it, citing the Latham experience to support their case. But Australians are looking for courage, Mr Smith, they are disillusioned by leaders who follow. If you could put the case cleverly and persuasively, you could make the current Government end up echoing you, rather than the other way around. After all, approximately 70 per cent of Australians still send their kids to public schools.

So here are a few suggestions that might help you offer a real alternative.

You could promise to provide the money needed to make sure all public schools are properly funded. The figures for 2003, as compiled by the Schools Resourcing Taskforce of the Ministerial Council for Education Employment and Youth Affairs, show that the amount of additional funding needed to make sure all public school students are funded so they can achieve the agreed national goals of schooling is $2.4 billion per annum. The under-funding of public schools, nationwide, is a weak spot for the current Government, particularly given the business community’s growing unease about it, and the increasing shortage of skilled workers that is holding back our economic growth.

Your new leader has made some very powerful and long-overdue statements about the frustration people feel with the Federal Government’s insistence on blaming the States (and vice versa) whenever an intractable problem rears its ugly head. If the Libs try to fob you off by calling public education a State issue, it’s a perfect opportunity for you to get stuck into them on that basis.

Thanks to emo

It is hard to escape the impression that the Howard Government is committed to destroying unionism in Australia, and that its implacable hostility to public schools is entirely due to the strength of the Teachers Unions. Again, there is a real opportunity as part of your fight against Australian Workplace Agreements to bring the nation’s attention to the real collateral damage from the Government’s war against unions: the children who attend public schools.

You can cite OECD figures to back your argument. They not only show that Australia spends less on education than the majority of OECD nations (a crazy policy in such a globally competitive environment), but that the educational benefits of the money we do spend flows to the more advantaged students to a much greater extent than in other countries.

If you have a little more courage, you could look at the current funding system for private schools known as Socioeconomic Status (SES) funding. Eventually, somebody is going to have to, because it is expensive, inefficient, unfair and economically disastrous, and will inevitably explode in some future government’s face. The fact that the current review of the SES program is being done in secret is very revealing. The Howard Government knows that open scrutiny of the system would be deeply embarrassing and very damaging to its credentials as a good economic manager.

I know it is politically impossible to take money away from these schools just at the moment, but there are other things you could do.

The justification for the lavish funding we give private schools is that such funding increases parental choice by keeping school fees affordable and accessible to so-called ‘ordinary’ Australians. Those of us on the other side of the argument know that there are no figures anywhere to back up this claim, and that private school fees continue to rise steeply and have done so ever since recurrent funding was granted to them 30 years ago. Last year the Sydney Morning Herald reported that private school fees had risen by five times the rate of inflation for yet another year, and the Sunday Telegraph put this year’s fee rise at 9 per cent. Many of the most well-subsidised schools now charge up-front fees of up to $20,000 after tax. Hardly an amount that the average, ordinary Australian can afford.

Why don’t you make sure your funding keeps such schools accessible? Surely that would be very popular with aspirational voters in marginal seats. Make it a condition for getting public funding that private fees must be capped. I am sure the clever policy people who surround you could easily work out a sliding scale, so that a school could choose whether they accept say $2 million per annum in public money and freeze or reduce the fees they charge accordingly, or receive a proportionately lesser amount if they want to keep their fees high. Make sure you take into account such things as building and sinking funds too. I hear many private school parents complaining vigorously that the fees advertised are not all they have to pay.

Surely no voter could object to an education policy that promoted real parental choice by making sure Australian parents have a choice between terrific, well-resourced public schools and terrific well-resourced private ones.

Whenever a parent claims to be making huge sacrifices to pay private school fees, any opposition worth its salt should point out the profound failure of public policy such a complaint implies. No parent should feel they have to send their child to a private school because the public ones aren’t properly funded or supported.

Go for it, Mr Smith. After all, what alternative do you have?

Unless you are content to be just an echoooooooooo.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.