Sinking the good ship State School
by Roy Martin
AEU Federal Research Officer On one level the Howard Government's proposed new funding arrangements for private schools can be seen as simply more of the same. In its first budget in 1996 the establishment of new private schools was deregulated. The iniquitous enrolment benchmark adjustment (EBA), which reduces Federal Government funding to government schools even though the number of students is increasing, was introduced. This took $11.9 million from government schools in 1998 and $21.1 million in 1999 and will continue to grow each year until it brings to zero the Federal Government contribution. In contrast, expenditure on private schools was set to grow rapidly. In 1996 the Federal Government spent 73 cents on government schools for every $1 that was spent on private schools. (Itself a considerable worsening of the position for government schools since the mid-'80s.) By 1998 this had declined to 61 cents. As a result of the windfall private schools are to receive in the 1999 budget — which will be progressively implemented to the year 2002 — the figure will go down to something like 57 cents! In 2003 private schools will receive more than $3.2 billion. By 2001 simply restoring government schools to the 1996 ratio of 73 cents in the dollar would mean an additional sum in the region of $400 million for government schools. By 2003 this figure will be nearer $800 million. However, the measures are much worse than yet another boost to private school funding at the cost of another blow to government school funding. They represent a major and fundamental restructuring of the basis on which private schools operate and of the relationship between the government and private sectors. At first glance, the concept of basing private school funding on the socio- economic composition of a school [the government's latest proposal] appears to be a measure compatible with principles of social justice. It can be sold as a "needs based" model, and appeal to a sense of fairness. This is only a smokescreen. First, guarantees are given that no school will be worse off, so by 2003 the government will provide an additional $340 million to non-Catholic schools, to ensure support from the private sector. The proposals are yet another way of increasing funding to private schools at the cost of government schools. At the same time the Federal Government continues to take money out of government schools through the EBA. Second, the real lie to the falseness of the claim that it is "needs based" is shown by the fact that wealthy schools, many of which have resource levels well above government schools, will continue to receive government largesse. There will be a basic entitlement to ensure that elitism and advantage continues to be subsidised. In fact, the wealthiest primary schools will receive an increase of over $70 per student! Perhaps most importantly, the proposal is based upon creating equity of Federal Government inputs, not equity of resource provision. It creates a funding model based on per student funding and ignores the needs and resources of schools and school communities. It is ironic that a government which has insisted that the education community focus on outcomes rather than inputs has come up with a model which can only claim equitable funding on the basis of inputs, but ignores the equity of the outcomes. The scheme is firmly targeted at fostering the self-interest of the middle class. It is seeking to encourage parents to ignore the situation of school provision overall and to seek their own solutions for their children, and the devil take the rest. It encourages parents to opt out of a government system which is being run down, and to create their own haven of adequate provision. The school they choose or create can receive Federal Government money according to the income of the parents, and they can add on whatever they wish to sacrifice, directly to their school. The school can receive government money on the basis of its student intake and then use its own resources, whether they be accumulated reserves, bequests, or greater fund raising capacity, to advantage its students over those from similar backgrounds attending less advantaged schools. Private schools can continue to cream off the highest achieving students, and to keep expanding because they will always produce apparently better outcomes than schools that are not able to select who they teach. Over the medium term, the commitment to "quality schools for all" will give way to "a quality school for my child". Raising the revenue to improve schools overall will be seen not as an act of social responsibility but as robbery of money that could be used for the direct benefit of one's immediate family. A deliberate conflict of interest is being created between personal interest and common good. Some government schools will feel compelled to compete. They will seek to raise fees to a level which will exclude some students, and to select those students most likely to enhance the reputation of the schools. They will model themselves on the private schools. Others will accept social responsibility and be left with the task of educating those which other schools do not want, with minimal resources, and under perpetual criticism for their failure to meet the standards of less accessible schools. They will become sink schools with the worst resources for the most needy students. It is a recipe to ensure that students receive the schooling their parents can afford rather than an equitable start for all. It is the end of a concept of equity in educational provision, and of free, universal quality education. It is intended to ensure that public provision is basic. Any parent with aspirations that their child receive quality will be forced to pay, either through fees to private schools or through contributions to those government schools which are seeking to compete. Even worse, it is apparently already being mooted in the Department of Employment, Training and Youth Affairs that consideration be given to using the same funding model for government schools. Perhaps the saddest part of all is that the churches, which in other forums are espousing the cause of the disadvantaged, lamenting the divided society and emphasising the importance of equitable education have been willing parties to secret negotiations with the government based purely on their own short-term interests. No longer can they claim that they do not wish to harm public education. They have shown that when the government waves dollars at them they are more than happy to sell out the majority of Australian children. Public education has been a solid foundation for Australian society. It is nothing short of criminal that the Federal Government and private school interests have conspired in silence to fundamentally undermine it.
* * *Acknowledgements: Queensland Teachers' Journal