The Gonski Mess In Progress


Some very interesting things are happening with the Gonski schools reforms. The Gillard Government's efforts to inject a needs-based funding model into Australia's famously complex schools system are haltingly approaching an uncertain finish line. With just days to go before the deadline of 30 June, we may be about to see a long-cherished dream of Australian schools realised. Or, as seems more likely, we may see yet another messy compromise that repeats the errors of the past.

If you're confused about the Gonski reforms, you're not alone. It's been a long and winding road to get this far, and the current status of the reforms is uncertain. So let's remind ourselves what this is all about.

Australia's educational performance in our schools is slipping. The problems are manifold, but most of them boil down to inequality. Australia's schools system is unevenly split between eight states and territories, plus the Catholic schools system, as well as a plethora of independent schools. Funding trickles through this delta from two main streams: the states and Canberra. Current funding formulas are almost comically inefficient.

The resources are also divided very unevenly. Elite private schools feature sparkling new buildings and to-class teaching facilities. Rural state schools make do with century-old infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, student performance is mixed. Some Australian students perform at very high levels in international comparisons. But some students, particularly Indigenous students and students from poorer backgrounds, are slipping behind rapidly. In measures like reading and maths, the bottom cohorts of students in our schools are literally years behind their top performing cousins.

The Government's response to the problem was to commission a report into the whole shebang, chaired by merchant banker David Gonski. After long deliberations (the panel took 7,000 submissions), which were hindered by the government's stipulation that no school could possibly be “worse off” under any new system, the Gonski panel came up with a formula that would achieve this.

Then, after thinking about their response for nearly as long, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Schools Minister, Peter Garrett, eventually settled on a new way to fund schools in Australia. All in all, the Gonski reforms have been in the works for most of the Labor government's two terms in office. Finally, the legislation is before Parliament.

Researcher Bronwyn Hinz has an excellent explainer about the Gonski reforms over at The Conversation. Basically, it works like a top-up. The Government has worked out a figure it is calling the “schooling resource standard”, which every school should meet. Schools which don't meet the current level will get extra funding through their current funding system. Schools which are already over the bar don't lose any funding, but instead get their current funding indexed. Approximately $14.5 billion in extra funding will be found for schools over the next six years. In theory, everyone wins.

Not so fast! The new money is less than what the Gonski review recommended, and it's not being targeted as tightly. Hinz estimates that only 17 per cent of the extra money will actually go to funding the various loadings for disadvantage.

Even so, you'd think that with a big pile of cash on offer, the states would see sense and take the money. But schools policy is intensely political, and the states have a big say in whether the current reforms will bear fruit. That's because the states are by far the biggest players in the system: collectively, they administer and fund the majority of Australian schools. And the states are being asked to chip in money too: approximately $5 billion of that $14.5 billion in all. That's a big ask for the cash-strapped jurisdictions like Queensland and Tasmania.

So far, only New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT have. Tasmania was in, but has since got cold feet, while Victoria and Western Australia are holding out. Queensland, home to a conservative LNP government with a big budget deficit, has been downright hostile – banning Peter Garrett from visiting Queensland schools.

Jealousy is also playing its part. As usual, the states are not only fighting Canberra, but with each other over who deserves the greater spoils. Western Australians were outraged to find that while New South Wales was being offered billions, children in the west would only get a paltry $300 million from the feds. Colin Barnett has held out for more money ever since – eventually extracting a handsome sweetener from Julia Gillard of around $900 million. Sensing victory, Barnett has doubled down, rejecting that offer too. Meanwhile, New South Wales, having signed on to Gonski before the new offer was put to Western Australia, is now crying foul.

For its part, the Coalition has been pointing out that the extra funding Gillard has been offering does not appear to be budgeted for yet.

Meanwhile, the Gonski bill has been passed by the House of Representatives and is currently before the Senate. The Coalition waved it through the House, which means we are very likely to see it pass in coming days.

Where that leaves schools in 2014 is anyone's guess. The new legislation will immediately affect the independent and Catholic schools systems, which receive much of their funding directly from the Commonwealth. But the state schools are hostage to the ongoing negotiations with Peter Garrett. Those that haven't signed up will remain on the old funding formulas – meaning hundreds of millions less funding, starting from next year. With the federal election fast approaching, we could see a hybrid policy emerge, in which some states are signed to Gonski and some are not.

All in all, you'd have to say it's a bit of a mess. There is still some chance that Gillard and Garrett can bring around recalcitrant premiers and get most of the states and territories onto the new deal. On the other hand, we could see New South Wales go back on the agreement and the entire Gonski negotiations collapse. That would leave Christopher Pyne with some serious headaches to sort out if the Coalition wins the election in September. Pyne might be secretly hoping Gonski does happen, because he'll have his work cut out for him should he win office.

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