The Coalition Ditches Its Gonski Promise


The Gonski schools reforms aren't quite dead yet, but they are on life support. That’s the inescapable conclusion from a dramatic development in education policy.

Yesterday, Education Minister Christopher Pyne told the ABC he would renegotiate all existing Commonwealth agreements on schools funding. The move erases years of painful progress at a stroke.

“The Coalition will keep all the commitments it made on a financial basis before the election, of course we will,” Pyne told the ABC’s Lexi Metherell.

“We have no intention of reducing the funding envelope that Labor took to the election. But we can't be expected to implement a new school funding model that is quite incapable of being implemented.”

In other words: all bets are off. You can picture the panic in the offices of Catholic education and the state education ministries, especially given Pyne and Tony Abbott pledged they were on a "unity ticket" with Labor over Gonski around a month before the election.

A bit of background: Labor spent much of its last year in government trying to get the various state and territory education systems to sign up to its revised schools funding model. The negotiations were the result of a tortuous policy development process that began with a review of schools funding by merchant banker David Gonski. Gonski’s name has been linked to education policy ever since.

The nub of the Gonski Review’s idea was to address inequality. To do this, the review said Australia’s antiquated and ludicrous schools funding arrangements had to be reformed.

With eight states and territories, plus the Catholic schools, plus the independent schools, all of them using different models and different formulas to allocate funding, the whole thing was a mess. Worse, it was degenerating rapidly, as private schools cannibalised the public sector. Business as usual was not an option.

Labor’s solution was to negotiate agreements with the states and territories, and the non-government schools, to implement a needs-based system. Every school student would be given a minimum standard of educational resourcing. Importantly, there would also be top-ups for schools dealing with poverty, Indigenous disadvantage, disabilities, and other challenges. The Commonwealth promised about $9 billion in extra funding. The states and territories were asked to put in $1 for every $2 from the feds.

What they came up with was not the “full Gonski”, with the complete level of funding that Gonski and his panel said would be required. But it was certainly a significant injection of funding into the schools system – particularly the public schools system. For some schools with high levels of disadvantage, such as state primary schools in poor suburbs, or schools in outback Australia, it would have meant real gains in extra funding, every year.

It wasn’t elegant but it was progress. A number of big states signed up, including New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, as well as the independent schools lobby, and the Catholic system.

As New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli pointed out last night, New South Wales has already implemented the new model, with 2014 money ready to flow to 2,200 schools in Australia’s largest state.

Now all that is up for grabs again. Pyne’s announcement won’t surprise close observers, but it certainly sets the cat among the pigeons. What does Pyne mean by a “funding envelope”? When he says a new formula is required, what will it be? How will all this square with the federal legislation, passed by Labor last term? The Gonski reforms are written into law via the 2013 Australian Education Act, which Pyne lacks the numbers in the Senate to repeal.

As usual in education policy, we’re left with confusion and conflict. The Catholic schools are bewildered. They thought an in-principle agreement with the Rudd government and the passage of the new law would lock in their new funding.

The states are revolting. New South Wales’ Adrian Piccoli, a National, has been strident in his criticism of his federal Coalition counterpart. Many of the neediest schools in the country are in National Party electorates, owing to the much higher levels of poverty and disadvantage in the bush.

“We have a lot of students who slip through the cracks,” he told the ABC last night. “That's why I'm such a strong supporter of a needs-based funding model, because it's not just an educational issue, this is a social issue for Australia, it's an economic issue and to a large degree it's a moral issue as well.”

Piccoli has a problem here. Christopher Pyne has never believed in needs-based funding and has consistently opposed the Gonski process. In Opposition, he repeatedly warned that his government would not implement it if all the states and territories had not signed up.

Can the states force Pyne to honour the deals? Probably not. Federal-state relations are an unequal business. The states like to scream and wail, but Canberra holds the purse-strings and therefore benefits from the “golden rule”, as they say: Pyne has the gold, so he makes the rules.

His hand is strengthened by the fact that some of the conservative states never signed up. Queensland, for instance, baulked at the extra funding required to ink a deal with Canberra. Instead, Campbell Newman’s LNP government has cut funding for education, blaming the Sunshine State’s fiscal woes.

We don’t know what Pyne will replace the Gonski model with. Most likely, it will be some kind of return to the old, broken “SES” model that reigned under John Howard. That system led to widening inequalities and entrenched disadvantage across Australia’s schools system. But it was popular with conservatives and neoliberals, because it vastly increased public funding for private schools.

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