TREVOR COBBOLD. Morrison puts more nails in the coffin of Gonski.

The Gonski funding model was systematically dismantled by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments and it was almost dead and buried by the end of Turnbull’s reign. The Morrison Government has put more nails in the Gonski coffin with a new special $4.6 billion funding deal for private schools that is not based on need.

The deal is the result of a ruthless campaign by the Catholic Church and its school organisations that divided the private school sector and the Coalition Government. It was given unprincipled and opportunistic support by Labor which forced the Turnbull Government into an electoral corner. Morrison bought peace with the Catholic and Independent sectors with more money. As the former NSW Minister for Education and now Director of the Gonski Institute, Adrian Piccoli, said: “This is purely a political fix to shut down a powerful lobby group”. Bill Shorten proudly took credit for the increase: “We’ve won the money for the Catholic sector…:”

The deal further undermines the principle of needs-based funding in several ways. Its main component is a $3.2 billion increase over 10 years from 2020 which is supposedly to implement a new direct household income measure of parent capacity to pay in private schools. The large bulk of the increase will go to Catholic schools.

However, the Government announced the funding increase before it has devised the new approach or fully worked out its funding implications. It is a negotiated settlement. If the measure of capacity to pay has not been decided it is impossible to determine whether it is fully based on need or simply reflects the negotiating power of the Catholic Church. It is not even possible to tell whether an increase in funding is warranted.

The proposed shift to a direct household income measure of the capacity to pay follows a recommendation by the National School Resourcing Board (NSRB). Its report showed that the current area-based measure significantly overstates the capacity to contribute of some schools and understates that of others. As a result, some schools receive less funding than they would using a direct measure of household income and other schools receive more funding.

The report found that a shift to a direct household income measure would involve a relatively small percentage reduction in funding for the Independent sector compared to the current funding model and a comparable increase for the Catholic sector. However, it did not publish any estimates of the funding impact of the change. It said that further modelling and analysis will be needed to define and determine how a direct measure will operate in practice and how it will impact individual schools.

The Government has effectively admitted it has not decided on the measure to be used by establishing a working group to do just that. In its response to the NSRB report, it announced it would establish a working group to develop the new approach and how it will be implemented. It said several matters would be considered including whether to use taxable income or gross income, how family size can be taken into account and how to overcome missing income tax data. As these matters are not resolved, it is impossible to estimate the funding implications for Catholic and Independent schools.

The other main component of the new deal is a $1.2 billion Choice and Affordability Fund over 10 years to support students in inner-city, rural, remote and drought-affected areas. It selectively favours private schools over public schools in these areas. As many commentators have observed, it is a “slush fund” for private schools.

The case for additional funding for private schools in rural, remote and drought-affected areas does not stand up. Private schools comprise only a small minority of schools in these areas. The Halsey inquiry into regional and remote education reported that 80% of schools in outer-regional and remote areas are public schools.  The Government is effectively saying that private schools in these areas deserve more funding than public schools. Moreover, the disadvantage loadings in the Gonski model are designed to provide extra support for students in these areas. If it were considered that schools in regional and remote areas warrant further support, the appropriate option would have been to provide it to all schools, not just private schools.

Another justification of the Fund is to support low-fee Catholic schools in inner-city areas, but it is another subsidy for the Catholic Church’s policy to provide low-fee schools in well-off areas where parents can afford to pay higher fees. It is contrary to the principle of needs-based funding. As the NSRB report said of this proposal:

“Such an outcome would, however, not be consistent with the fundamental Commonwealth principle of distributing funds to schools and school systems on a needs basis.” [p. 44]

The Fund also involves a new “no school will lose a dollar” guarantee for Catholic and Independent schools. It appears to be designed to compensate the Catholic sector for the loss of its generous system-weighted average funding arrangements under the Gonski 2.0 changes and to compensate Independent schools for any reduction in funding arising from the shift to a direct income measure of capacity to pay.

In kowtowing to Catholic school demands and compensating Independent schools, the Morrison Government has jettisoned the principle of needs-based funding and reverted to school choice as the policy priority. The heading of the Prime Minister’s media release announcing the funding increase said it all: “More choice for Australian families”. For years, the Coalition has been on the back foot after the Gonski report made equity the national policy priority in education. The Morrison Government has unashamedly re-affirmed the Howard-era mantra of school choice which was always just a cover for more funding for private schools.

The new deal also breaks with the principle of needs-based funding because it is contained to private schools. There is no funding increase for public schools, which enrol over 80% of disadvantaged students.  As Adrian Piccoli, said:

“There is nothing equitable or fair about that at all and is contrary to the very concept of needs-based funding. This does nothing for the kids who need the funding the most.”

Morrison dismissed the needs of public schools as a matter for state governments saying that the federal government “has always been the principal funder of non-government schools”. It continues the Coalition’s long tradition of guaranteed funding of private schools and no guarantees for public schools.

The Prime Minister himself acknowledged that the new funding package is a special deal. He told the ABC’s AM program that his new announcements “sit outside” the current needs-based funding arrangements. Even the normally supportive Centre for Independent Studies described it as a “special deal” that undermines the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 funding model.

The new special deal continues the practice of successive Coalition and Labor Governments to provide special funding arrangements for private schools that contradict the principle of needs-based funding. It should not be supported by the Labor Opposition or the cross-benches. More details are needed to assess whether the $3.2 billion increase is warranted. The $1.2 billion slush fund should be completely rejected.

Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools. This article is a summary of a new Education Policy Brief available on the SOS website.

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