Gonski Takes Labor Back To Schools


What will the Gillard government be remembered for? The carbon tax? The mining tax? The National Broadband Network?

One thing the government won’t be remembered for is its surpassing unpopularity, underlined again today by another shocking poll. Before taking office in 1996, John Howard lost two elections as opposition leader and was an exceedingly unpopular federal treasurer. And no-one really remembers the extended periods that the Howard government spent in opinion poll purgatory, or for that matter the sustained hatred felt for Paul Keating by large sections of the Australian community.

Governments are remembered for their lasting legislative and policy achievements, not for the political atmosphere in which they make their decisions. Medicare is a good example. A nationalised public health system in Australia was first created by the Whitlam government, partially dismantled by the Fraser government, and reinstated by the Hawke government. Since then, it has become exceedingly popular, with few Australians supporting a return to a largely private health care system.

The Menzies government was responsible for the great post-war expansion of the Australian university system, in the wake of the Murray Commission of 1957. Substantial new funds were found, and a number of entirely new universities created in the 1960s. The Menzies university expansion was permanent: Australian university education continued to grow into the 1990s, by which time even savage funding cutbacks in the late 1990s could not halt the growing demand for tertiary education among Australian school-leavers.

Of course long-lasting policy reforms are not to everyone’s liking. One of the Howard government’s most effective policy achievements was to greatly expand the level and scope of federal funding for non-government schools. Beginning about the same time that it was cutting billions from the universities, John Howard and his education minister David Kemp set about radically expanding Commonwealth support for the Catholic system and the independent private schools. As a result, the resources available to them soared. The top private schools had always been able to offer high quality education to their pupils, but the new system meant that billions of taxpayer dollars flowed into private schools at all levels.

According to the ACER’s Andrew Dowling (pdf), Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose from around $3.50 for each dollar spent on public schools, to around $5 dollars between 1997 and 2007. In 2009, the Commonwealth provided 74 per cent of all government net recurrent funding for the Catholic sector and 73 per cent in the independent sector. These vast new funding programs meant that, for many middle-class parents, sending their children to a private school became possible for the first time.

Schooling is one of the most contested areas of Australian public policy for a reason. That reason is class. Perhaps because Australia has historically developed a very fine universal primary and secondary education system, private schooling has traditionally been one of the gold-plated ways parents can demonstrate a bit of class distinction for their children. Schools like The Kings School in Parramatta, Sydney Grammar in Sydney, and Peninsula Grammar in Victoria have regularly turned out likely prospects for the upper echelons of Australian society: the chief justices, chief executives and chief ministers that sit at the apex of our supposedly classless country.

In comparison to these top schools, many independent schools enjoy far more modest means. The Catholic system, which has educated many a young Labor voter, was for many decades penurious, and its generally poor standards and meagre resources were so clear that it helped frame the Whitlam government’s schools funding policy in the 1970s, led by Peter Karmel. Karmel’s recommendations formed the basis of a 25-year settlement in Australian schools funding, in which the states funded the government schools, the Commonwealth funded the universities, and parents and churches funded private schools with some residual support from the feds.

That was the settlement overturned by Howard and Kemp when they decided to pour billions into private school education. The result is that Canberra now gives more money to private schools than it does to universities: more than $36 billion in federal funds will flow to non-government schools in the period 2009-2013.

But schools funding is a particularly tricky issue for Labor politically. Not only must it contend with the vocal and effective private schools lobby, it also has to find a way to keep factional bosses happy, many of whom support the Catholic education system. Labor insiders still blame Labor’s 2004 education policy under Mark Latham, which promised to roll back some of the more outrageous largesse for the wealthiest private schools, for the loss of several marginal seats in new South Wales. The policy became a lightning rod for attacks on Labor’s supposed "class warfare" against leading private schools. If it was class warfare, the upper class won convincingly.

This was the thinking behind Kevin Rudd’s decision to roll over the existing schools funding arrangement in 2007, for the 2008-2012 quadrenium. Julia Gillard then extended it for another year into 2013, to buy a bit more time for Labor to come up with a policy. In the meantime, an extensive policy review of the schools system was announced under David Gonski. Gonski took more than a year to research the labyrinthine complexity of schools funding, but he duly delivered his massive report last year Since then, Julia Gillard and her schools minister Peter Garrett have been busy figuring out what to do about it.

Gonski established a few things unequivocally. One was that Australia’s school standards were dropping compared to international benchmarks. Another was that big gaps in quality had opened up in the Australian system — between top private schools and run-of-the-mill government schools, between capital cities and remote regions, and between indigenous and non-indigenous students. Finally, the Gonski report restated what everyone knew, but some were trying to deny. Schools funding is a dog’s breakfast — a complex and confused mish-mash of Commonwealth, state and territory funding systems and socio-economic formulas that were neither sustainable nor adequate.

To address this, Gonski recommended that the entire system of schools funding be reformed, with the eight state and territory standards and the alphabet soup of SES and AGSRC replaced by a single, national standard for funding per student that would apply across all the education systems of the land, public and private. The new standard would equal about $8000 per primary student and $10,500 per secondary student, and would also be topped up by extra payments on the basis of student needs, such as Indigenous students, and students with a disability.

To do this, Gonski argued that extra funding should be found: about $5 billion extra, to be precise, based on 2009 figures, This would equal about $6.5 billion now. Gonski thought that most of that should go to government schools, because that is where the greatest needs are.

Now, finally, it seems that the Gillard government is screwing its courage to the sticking place to act on Gonski. According to The Australian’s Justine Ferrari, Cabinet has already sat to discuss its response to Gonski, with more details still to be decided. "[The schools policy] will return to cabinet in the next week or two, with details expected to be released in the middle of next month and legislation introduced into parliament to overhaul the school funding system in October or November," Ferrari reckons.

If this is true, it represents Julia Gillard’s best chance for a sustained policy legacy. More funding for government schools is also likely to be popular, despite the guaranteed campaign of lies from private school lobbyists like Kevin Donnelly and Christopher Pyne. Getting the states to agree on any policy reform will be devilishly difficult, as the states are strapped for cash. So the feds will have to stump up most of the money.

But if the money can be found — and that’s a big if, given the Gillard government’s own fiscal constraints — then it represents the best chance in a decade for genuine reform of Australia’s schools system. That ought to be something that Julia Gillard, who cherishes hard work and education above all else, really could be proud of.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.