Wheeler Centre school funding debate
24th May 2011

I'm involved in a public debate this evening organised by the Wheeler Centre on the topic of school funding.  Below is a related comment piece on the topic.  The piece is also published on the ABC's The Drum website.

The Canadian author, Malcolm Gladwell, defines a tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”.

Based on the latest enrolment figures for the Australian Capital Territory, where the number of students enrolled in non-government secondary schools, for the first time, exceeds government school enrolments, its clear that education is experiencing a tipping point.

Additional evidence that state and territory education systems are experiencing significant change include the facts that 34% of Australian students now attend Catholic and independent schools and that while enrolments over the period 1998-2008 surged by 21.9%, growth in state school enrolments flat lined at 1.1%.

Why are parents voting with their feet and why are Catholic and independent schools so popular?  One response, best represented by comments attributed to Cathy Smith, from the Australian Education Union – ACT Branch, is because government schools are under funded (SMH, May 2011).

Smith is also described as arguing that there is no evidence that non-government schools deliver stronger results.  The teacher union spokesman is wrong on both accounts.

Figures quoted in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library Background Note on school funding (November 2010) state, on average, that state school students receive $12,639 from state and federal governments, whereas a student at a non-government school receives $6,606.

The Library paper also notes that the existing socioeconomic status (SES) funding model, currently being reviewed by a committee headed by the Sydney businessman David Gonski, is needs based.

In relation to government funding, wealthier non-government schools only receive13.5% of the recurrent cost of educating a student at a government school, what is known as the Average Government School Recurrent Cost (AGSRC).

Research, both nationally and internationally, also concludes that Catholic and independent schools, even after adjusting for a school’s socioeconomic profile, are able to achieve stronger results that government schools in areas like academic standards, completion rates and entry to tertiary studies.

Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, argues that the strong performance of Catholic schools “cannot be attributed to socioeconomic background” and that students do well because of high levels of “parental and community involvement” with “higher standards of discipline and greater emphasis on academic performance”.

Researchers Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek in studies funded by the OECD investigating stronger performing education systems conclude that such systems are characterised by autonomy, diversity and choice in education – attributes commonly associated with non-government schools.

In a 2007 OECD study Woessmann argues “The empirical facts provide a clear answer.  Various forms of school accountability, autonomy and choice policies combine to lift student achievement to substantially higher levels”.

Arguments in favour of school choice, where schools are given the freedom to manage their own affairs and parents are financially supported by governments regardless of the type of school attended, explain the British Government’s commitment to what are called Academy Schools and the growth of charter schools and innovations like school vouchers in the US.
In its submission to the Gonski Review the Australian Education Union, instead of supporting the right parents have to choose where their children go to school and to be properly funded, claims that government schools are the only schools that deserve financial support.

The AEU’s submission argues that the existing SES funding model is “inequitable and unsustainable” and that in relation to non-government schools “there is no pre-existing, pre-determined entitlement to public funding; i.e. there is no a priori justification for public funding of private schools”.

Ignored are the Australian and international human rights covenants and agreements guaranteeing parents’ rights to choose where their children go to school and the type of education they receive.

Also ignored is that as Catholic and independent school parents pay taxes and contribute to government revenue for a school system they do not use they are entitled to some support.

In the lead up to the 2007 and 2010 federal elections the Australian Labor Party realised that having a hit-list of non-government schools would be political suicide as thousands of Australian families, especially those in marginal seats, are committed to sending their children to non-government schools.

The Gonski Review is due to finalise its deliberations and make recommendations by the end of the year.  At that time the ALP Government will have to decide its stance and Australian parents will know for certain whether Julia Gillard’s promise about maintaining funding has been kept or whether it’s just an another example of political spin and opportunism.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Standards Institute and author of Australia’s Education Revolution. 


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24th May 2011

I'm involved in a public debate this evening organised by the Wheeler Centre on the topic of school funding.  Below is a related comment piece on the topic.  The piece is also published on...
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