Funding Public Schools in the Clever Country

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In public life the profound issues — those recycled by various interest groups, policy wonks and pesky advocates for this and that — have always grappled for space with the popular, the superficial and the newsworthy. Every now and then, the popular and the profound come together.

The Rudd Government has a tendency to use profound language ("evidence-based policy") to justify popular policies. The popular and the profound again cropped up alongside each other in education last week as federal politicians gathered in Canberra for the constantly recycled festival of Parliament. Keen to be on the front foot, the Rudd Government launched an assault on welfare recipient parents of kids who truant school, a move which has a strong popular heritage in bashing dole bludgers. He also wants information about everything in schools: taking a stick to schools is everyone’s favourite sport.

Sure — there are useful elements in some popular policies. Information about schools informs government policy and parental choice. It’s just that the beneficiaries are usually those already well educated and with access to networks and money. It rarely improves all schools for all kids: it crams middle class kids together and leaves poorer kids, schools and communities further out on a limb — further worsening our equity gaps in schooling.

There are ways to solve some of these problems — and this is where we get to this larger unresolved profound issue: the corrupted and dysfunctional way we fund schools.

This issue must be recycled until it is resolved. Two months after the Rudd Government was elected, the Sydney Morning Herald broke a story about a secret Howard government review into school funding. Basically the review confirmed what critics had been claiming for years: the Howard government’s funding policy was a mess, compounded by complex and illogical deals and guarantees which ensured a large number of schools were funded well in excess of their entitlements.

Thanks to Bill Leak

It was potentially one of those "oh-my-gosh — we didn’t realise it was so awful" moments that newly elected governments usually capitalise on — and follow up with more considered policy solutions. For a host of reasons, not least the fear of being beaten up by private school lobbies, Rudd and Gillard stuck to their line that the funding framework would not be changed until 2012.

The criticism has continued to mount, albeit deflected from time to time by the recycled popular things: school funding has never been a sexy or dramatic issue. There are no riots in the streets because of problems created by the Howard-Rudd schools funding framework. The gaps between schools widen slowly. Residualisation doesn’t happen overnight. No one dies in an under-funded school. Any other consequences are well beyond the electoral cycle. And, apart from anything else, school funding is so eye-glazingly complex — all but the most persistent journalists break into a cold sweat at the thought of having to explain it.

But it’s back! We now have another potential oh-my-gosh moment thanks to the number crunching and projections of Dr Jim McMorrow, currently Honorary Associate Professor in Education at the University of Sydney. McMorrow convincingly argues that in real terms and regardless of enrolments, public schools are going to be seriously dudded if the Rudd Government doesn’t amend the Howard funding framework. The report shows how real funding to public schools is going to fall over the next four years; McMorrow likens the decline to the loss of 1000 teacher positions. By contrast, the projected increases to non-government schools amounts to a gain of 2650 teachers, well in excess of what might be explained by increased enrolments.

If funding to private schools isn’t pulled back to their entitled amounts then an extra $1.5 billion will be needed just for public schools to keep up.

McMorrow’s is timely advice: a looming hurdle for Rudd and Gillard is the required legislation for funding schools in the 2009-2012 period. Julia Gillard has promised to review the system for — wait for it — the 2013-2016 funding cycle. A Rudd Government would have to be into a third term before any reform would even start to bite.

McMorrow isn’t any ordinary critic. He is extremely measured, arguably conservative and well-credentialed in the ALP. He gathers and weighs up the evidence, explains the options and comes up with practical policy solutions. What better person to throw Kevin and Julia a lifeline? This is an oh-my-gosh moment the ALP cannot afford to ignore.

The time is right for the Labor heavies to be serious about evidence-based policy and to provide a long missing ingredient in education policy: courageous leadership.

New Matilda

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.

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