Good­bye Gon­ski.

Fair­ness now Gon­ski

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Jane Caro and Lyn­d­say Con­nors

IF TH­ESE HIGH-FEE SCHOOLS TOOK ON THE MOST CHAL­LENG­ING AND COSTLY KIDS TO TEACH, PER­HAPS THEN THERE MIGHT BE SOME JUS­TI­FI­CA­TION FOR THEIR PUB­LIC SUB­SIDY.

Those of us who be­lieve in the pri­macy of the only ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem open to all – namely pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion – got our hopes up a few years ago. We al­lowed our­selves to be­lieve that the rec­om­men­da­tions of the 2010 Gon­ski re­view panel might mean good sense would pre­vail over po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency, par­ti­san­ship, ide­ol­ogy, trib­al­ism and just plain snob­bery when it came to the eq­ui­table fund­ing of ed­u­ca­tion for our chil­dren. Thanks to the Turn­bull ver­sion of Gon­ski, those hopes have now been well and truly dashed.

We didn’t fall into the same trap be­fore this week’s bud­get, of course. Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates have learnt their les­son. And our lack of ex­pec­ta­tions was vin­di­cated. Once again pub­lic schools were used for purely po­lit­i­cal pur­poses via a sop to the trou­ble­some re­li­gious right who so be­devil our cur­rent PM. The re­li­gious chap­laincy pro­gram got any avail­able ex­tra fund­ing and was made per­ma­nent in a move that un­der­lines how lit­tle the LNP un­der­stand of the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of sec­u­lar univer­sal pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion open to chil­dren from fam­i­lies of all faiths and none.

The Turn­bull ver­sion of Gon­ski bor­rowed the brand and the pack­ag­ing but ripped the guts out of the prod­uct. The pub­lic school sys­tem and the stu­dent ma­jor­ity that it serves were pushed into the back­ground while both ma­jor par­ties tripped over them­selves to sat­isfy the de­mands of their own favourite seg­ments of the pri­vate-school sec­tor – a sec­tor that, as a whole, serves about one third of the school pop­u­la­tion, dis­pro­por­tion­ately drawn from bet­ter-off fam­i­lies.

The LNP have been brazen about their com­mit­ment to what they call “in­de­pen­dent” schools, in­clud­ing those that charge high and ever-mount­ing fees.

They have claimed their par­tial­ity to­wards th­ese palaces of priv­i­lege is “part of their DNA”. Un­der Turn­bull’s mu­tated (and mu­ti­lated) Gon­ski, 87 per cent of pub­lic schools will still not be funded to the agreed min­i­mum school re­source stan­dard by 2023. Sixty-five per cent of fee-charg­ing schools, how­ever, will be funded above it.

In the run-up to the Bat­man by­elec­tion, the ALP stepped for­ward as the pa­tron saint of Catholic schools, pledg­ing to re­in­state their for­mer “no losers” deal so that the pro­ceeds of the past “spe­cial deals” for th­ese schools by both ma­jor par­ties will be en­shrined in their fu­ture fund­ing.

At the same time, sim­mer­ing hos­til­i­ties have bro­ken into open war­fare be­tween sec­tions of the Catholic and the in­de­pen­dent schools, and even within the for­mer. The fight is over how best to as­sess par­ents’ ca­pac­ity to pay to­wards their chil­dren’s pri­vate school­ing. The Turn­bull govern­ment is await­ing the ad­vice of the Na­tional School Re­sourc­ing Board. They must de­cide how to as­sess how much par­ents can pay to­wards achiev­ing their school’s agreed School­ing Re­source Stan­dard (SRS) as a ba­sis for de­ter­min­ing the school’s need for pub­lic fund­ing.

But surely what makes a mock­ery of this ex­er­cise to achieve “needs-based” and “sec­tor-blind” fund­ing is that our gov­ern­ments will con­tinue, re­gard­less, to fund even those pri­vate schools whose fees alone are more than dou­ble this stan­dard.

The un­der­ly­ing rea­sons for the cur­rent melee lie in the his­tory of schools fund­ing. It was the then Coun­try Party that forced the Whit­lam govern­ment to ex­tend pub­lic fund­ing to pri­vate schools op­er­at­ing well above the Karmel tar­get stan­dards in or­der to get its Schools Com­mis­sion es­tab­lished in 1973. This con­tam­i­nated what was con­ceived as a needs-based scheme by build­ing in a ten­sion be­tween needs and en­ti­tle­ment as a ra­tio­nale for pub­lic fund­ing.

In its drive to use pub­lic fund­ing to fuel parental choice and com­pe­ti­tion among schools and par­ents, the Howard govern­ment forced on to the ma­jor­ity of schools a fund­ing model more suited to the mi­nor­ity – the in­de­pen­dent pri­vate school. School sys­tems, with their ca­pac­ity to achieve in­ter­nal rec­i­proc­i­ties and economies of scale in the in­ter­est of ef­fi­ciency and fair­ness, didn’t quite fit.

All of which begs the ques­tion – what kind of democ­racy have we be­come? One where gov­ern­ments send the equiv­a­lent of a thou­sand or more teacher salaries to schools whose pri­vate fees alone bring in twice the level of the Com­mon­wealth’s own re­source stan­dard in­stead of to those schools that re­ally need th­ese teach­ers.

This is a pol­icy for which no ed­u­ca­tional jus­ti­fi­ca­tion has ever been mounted by ei­ther the donors of this pub­lic largesse or the re­cip­i­ents. And it is dif­fi­cult to find any other form of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this far­ci­cal prac­tice, unique to this coun­try.

If th­ese high-fee schools took on the most chal­leng­ing and costly kids to teach, per­haps then there might be some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their pub­lic sub­sidy. But they have long given pref­er­ence to lav­ish fa­cil­i­ties over pro­vid­ing for stu­dents with high sup­port needs.

Nor are th­ese high-fee schools role mod­els or “light­house” schools for those less well en­dowed. High-fee schools com­pete on the ba­sis of their su­pe­rior, and pub­licly in­flated, re­sources, not their ed­u­ca­tional ex­cel­lence. If we looked at sim­ple re­turn on in­vest­ment, they’d be left chok­ing in the dust by their much cheaper and more ef­fi­ciently run govern­ment se­lec­tive schools.

Nei­ther is there any eco­nomic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for adding pub­lic dol­lars to the high fees. If they can’t pro­vide a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion with the huge fees they al­ready charge, then giv­ing them more from the pub­lic purse won’t help. All that money does is fur­ther fund the re­sources arms race th­ese schools have locked them­selves into to at­tract well-heeled par­ents. Well­ness cen­tres, on­site baris­tas, Scot­tish cas­tles in the air, any­one?

What about the ar­gu­ments com­monly put by pri­vate school ad­vo­cates? How do they stack up?

They use the ar­gu­ment that par­ents pay taxes.

But every work­ing adult pays taxes, in­clud­ing those with no chil­dren. Taxes are not a down pay­ment on the ser­vices you per­son­ally use. You pay taxes to meet your tax obli­ga­tions, not to gain per­sonal priv­i­leges over other tax­pay­ers (or their kids).

With­out pub­lic fund­ing, fees would go up, they say, and par­ents would move their kids into the pub­lic sys­tem that then couldn’t cope. There is no ev­i­dence pub­lic sub­si­dies have had any ef­fect on fees in th­ese high-fee schools. In­deed, th­ese schools pro­vide a prime ex­am­ple of what econ­o­mists call in­elas­tic de­mand.

Pri­vate school par­ents make sac­ri­fices, they lament. Buy­ing some­thing for your own child is not a sac­ri­fice, it’s a de­ci­sion, and like all such de­ci­sions has op­por­tu­nity costs. After all, you have to have the $35,000 be­fore you can “sac­ri­fice” it. More­over the qual­ity of a child’s ed­u­ca­tion should not be de­pen­dent on whether they have par­ents who are ei­ther will­ing or able to make “sac­ri­fices”.

They go on to claim that re­mov­ing fund­ing from high-fee schools is the pol­i­tics of envy. What about the pol­i­tics of avarice and greed? And let’s not go into the kind of hubris and un­con­scious priv­i­lege that sees it­self – self-pity­ingly – as the fo­cus of oth­ers’ envy.

But there are even more fun­da­men­tal rea­sons why our unique sys­tem of fund­ing schools is so ir­ra­tional and de­struc­tive. In­deed, it some­times feels as if Aus­tralia is as blind to the lack of logic be­hind, and dam­age caused by, our fund­ing of schools as many Amer­i­cans are to their coun­try’s lack of sen­si­ble gun con­trol.

When gov­ern­ments pro­vide pub­lic fund­ing for high­fee schools they are not only en­dors­ing the level of fees th­ese schools charge as be­ing ed­u­ca­tion­ally jus­ti­fi­able but are ac­tu­ally say­ing they are not ad­e­quate and that fur­ther fund­ing is nec­es­sary from govern­ment. If gov­ern­ments want to ar­gue that the likes of Riverview and The King’s School have a level of re­sources barely ad­e­quate for the highly se­lected group of stu­dents they serve, then they are guilty of grossly un­der­fund­ing all other Aus­tralian schools. The only way in which gov­ern­ments could morally jus­tify the pub­lic fund­ing of th­ese schools is by adopt­ing their re­source lev­els as the ba­sic min­i­mum stan­dard for all; and by pro­vid­ing the pub­lic fund­ing needed to raise all schools to at least that level (with sig­nif­i­cantly more fund­ing for schools serv­ing stu­dents from the other end of the so­cioe­co­nomic spec­trum).

Why won’t they do that? Be­cause it would be both a gross waste of money and com­pletely un­af­ford­able.

As a re­sult, the mes­sage be­ing sent to our chil­dren is chill­ingly Or­wellian. Namely that some kids are more im­por­tant and worth­while than oth­ers. No won­der kids in some of our pub­lic schools com­monly re­fer to them­selves as at­tend­ing the “povo” schools. It’s short for poverty and dev­as­tat­ingly ac­cu­rate.

Aus­tralia needs po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who will drive progress to­wards what this coun­try needs: schools fund­ing ar­range­ments that are trans­par­ent, ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive and fair to all. Schools fund­ing that has the in­tegrity to in­spire pub­lic con­fi­dence and give us a bet­ter re­turn on our con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment.

It is hard to main­tain hope when we have po­lit­i­cal par­ties that are un­will­ing to peel away even this fine layer of ab­sur­dity from our schools fund­ing ar­range­ments, or to end the hypocrisy of in­clud­ing th­ese mon­u­ments to pri­vate priv­i­lege in their so-called

“needs-based” fund­ing schemes.

LYN­D­SAY CON­NORS has held se­nior po­si­tions in ed­u­ca­tion at state and na­tional level.

JANE CARO is a Syd­ney­based nov­el­ist, writer and doc­u­men­tary maker.

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