I’m reliably informed that whenever you talk to Labor politicians about school funding they start to twitch, and mumble "Mark Latham hit list". Helped along by numerous commentators they are spooked by the 2004 election and the policy to cut private school funding. Regardless of any serious analysis of that election, the urban myth that it was a policy disaster has dogged Labor ever since.
Maybe this helps explain what has happened since. Only the ALP could set up a review of school funding and tie its hands by declaring up front that no school would lose a dollar. And then after two years of exhausting consultation and inquiry only the ALP could declare, on the day the review reported, that we should just start up yet another conversation about the whole matter.
The Gonski recommendations have been met with surprising if suspicious agreement by all sides in the school funding debate. For some time the media has editorialised that something is rotten in school funding and it must be fixed. Even private school lobbies have accepted the need for change or have remained silent — with the exception of Christopher Pyne who doesn’t seem to know much about either silence or school funding.
In a week when everyone is pointing to problems of Labor leadership and direction Gillard’s decision to drag her feet has been met with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. "Honestly," wrote the Herald’s Andrew Stevenson, "what is left to be said". The Fairfax press editorialised, "So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told ‘we’ll see’". The Australian reported on the perplexed responses from all and sundry. Only the Daily Telegraph lined up in favour of more talking.
So why the delay to implementing a report that has gained such widespread approval? Yes, it will take a few months to turn some of the recommendations into workable models, but that’s not the problem. Federal Labor is in a cold funk about changing the current arrangements — particularly as every major interest group will be doing their own modeling around Gonski’s recommendations and arming themselves for a coming fight.
The existing system favours some families over others, so any change will be contentious. There will be a mix of funding: an adjusted amount for each student and additional loadings based on need. Any decision to channel funds mainly into large grants per student will do nothing for equity; a strong needs component on the other hand will potentially change our landscape of schools, subject to the size of any funding pie. Oh, and that’s another problem. You can imagine the argy bargy which is about to take place behind closed doors.
Will there be winners and losers? Of course there will be, just as we have created winners at the expense of losers for years. We have subsidised the bright, the aspirant, and the well-endowed — sending them off to schools where they could better themselves and ease the anxieties of their equally aspirant parents.
What is different today is that we now know the consequences for others: for students and families left behind and consequences for educational standards and economic growth. The jury is out: concentrating advantage boosts some students but concentrating low achievers nobbles those at the bottom of the school food chain. Just two weeks ago the OECD issued another warning about this. We are starting to realise why successful school systems don’t do this. We might be 10 years too late.
If the recommendations correcting this imbalance are implemented there is no doubt that some private schools are going to become more expensive over time as their public funding reduces in real terms. These will be the schools which in one way or another have enrolled students who are more advantaged. They will have a lesser call on the public funds needed to ensure a resource standard for all students. Their fees will go up, but they do anyway. Public funding has never made these schools more accessible. (Are you listening, David Kemp?)
Regardless, we now have to endure months of feverish debate and lobbying. Those with the resources and who know the buttons to push have managed to delay fundamental reform in the past. They will now seek to water down any attempt to steer policy and funding toward equitable and quality provision for all.
They might have a leg to stand on if there was any truth in their coming array of sideshow arguments. Fee-charging schools save public money, comes the recycled claim. But should the purpose of public funding of schools be to save public funding? What a bizarre aspiration, given the well-known social and economic dividends from universal and free quality education. It is time we started to count the real cost when we don’t get this right. As it is we spend billions subsidising school choice and face a huge cost of compensating the kids left behind. Some saving!
Decades ago we started developing our unsustainable hybrid system of schools. We were warned at the time about the problems it would create. At no time were we ever asked if we really wanted to create some school pathways for the better-off, leaving just safety nets for the others.
This time around we have been promised a review and it has now reported. The Federal Government must not be spooked by distractions and be prepared to stay this very important course. It has spoken the language of education reform for years; it now has the chance to implement the most needed reform of all.