Why Public Schools Are Different

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Since the release of the Review of School Funding report in February, more than 40,000 public sector parents and teachers have signed onto the "I give a Gonski" website. The site is designed to encourage uptake of David Gonski’s recommendations to increase funding for public schools. The Gonski supporters recognise that the current level of funding for their schools is inadequate. They worry this will lead to an unacceptable decline in quality and more additions to Australia’s appallingly long tail of students who fall behind.

The desperation to see all the children in public schools thrive is causing a collective blind eye to be turned to the adverse impacts of yet more public money flowing to non-government schools. The viability of the public education system, social cohesion and the ideal of a fair-go society are all being placed in greater peril by a greater flow of taxpayer funds to the non-government education sector.

With Prime Minister Julia Gillard now committed to the Gonski principles and determined to take them to the states at next year’s first COAG meeting, it is important to critically assess the most radical reform of schooling in a generation.

For those of us who support public schools there is much to welcome in the six-member panel’s prescription for education funding. The public sector’s share of the Gonski $6.5 billion would amount to a $4.3 billion boost to recurrent funding. The average school could see its teacher workforce boosted by seven, allowing a sharper focus on the needs of individual students and time for mentoring young educators and the development of professional practice.

More importantly, the report recognises for the first time that governments must fund public schools at a level where they can fulfil their obligations to their students and society. Gonski defined the schooling resource standard to be what it costs to produce quality outcomes in a school serving an average population. The panel then proposed supplementary funding for each public school to take into account the impacts of factors such as special needs students, socio-economic disadvantage, proportion of Indigenous students, English language proficiency, remoteness and school size.

Resourcing public schools to this benchmark will shift the definition of education funding from a Treasury-driven "this is what we can afford" constraint to a rigorous, educationally-based "this is what we need to invest" foundation.

Enthusiasm within the public education community ends when the same funding framework is applied to non-government schools.

The Gonski approach is to assess the "anticipated level of private contribution" to each school and then adjust the proportion of the resource standard that is paid in government subsidies. In theory, a Catholic or independent school recruiting from a disadvantaged community could receive up to 90 per cent of the per student amount paid to a public school.

If the hardball lobbyists of private education had not intervened, an elite institution whose parents could already afford to pay more than the resource standard would receive no public funding.

Public sector supporters should be concerned about yet more public funds going into low-fee non-government schools. The already intense competition in lower income areas for children from orderly families with regular incomes will become even more biased against the local government school. There are very few children with disruptive or challenging behaviours to be found in fundamentalist Christian, Anglican and Catholic systemic schools.

The powerful wealthy private school lobby successfully pushed the Gillard Government into agreeing to the same "no school worse off" promise that resulted in the funding maintenance scandal that has plagued John Howard’s SES funding model. Many of the very wealthiest private schools that already enjoy $3000 or $4000 per student each year in public funding will be even better off.

Tying public and private education together in the one funding benchmark ignores the unique role of government schools. A single model cannot address the inherent disadvantages that the public sector faces in a market for students that has been overheated by a decade and a half of extravagant non-government school funding. It cannot address the social justice and cohesion benefits that public schools deliver and to which non-government schools hardly contribute.

It is not surprising that the public sector teacher unions have welcomed Gonski. It offers the lifeline they have been seeking for the past decade. The students that their members teach will get nothing but crumbs from an Abbott government. The status quo is an intolerable future in which too many public schools risk falling enrolments and rising challenges to the ability of teachers to deliver for their students.

Confronted with the political realities, many public education supporters will give half a Gonski, hoping that the money for public schools does flow and make a difference and that the march of the non-government sector can be held in check.

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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