Monday, 17 October 2016

The great school funding debate ... again (2016 Term 4 Week 2)

Once again the topic of school funding is back on the agenda. The clamor in the public arena is off and running on the same old, well-worn lines. Comments from the Federal Education minister in the lead up to a meeting with the State Education ministers fanned the flames of public postulation, culminating with an article in the SMH that named Inaburra School (among others) as being 'over-funded'. It is always exciting to be in the paper, but I had mixed feelings about this one! The topic of school funding seems set to continue for the next little while and, given that it is a topic that excites lots of heat and not much light, I make the following comments to assist you in understanding the issues. 

1. The Gonski reforms are a complex set of interacting recommendations, not a simple proposal to cut government funding for private schools

You can imagine how bizarre it must be for David Gonski, one of Australia's most eminent business identities and the head of the Gillard government's Review of Funding for Schools panel, to find the phrase I give a gonski now part of the public lexicon and which is most stridently taken up by the education unions. As Matthew Knott perceptively recognises,"David Gonski's review into school funding is fast becoming like Tolstoy's War and Peace or Joyce's Ulysses. A hefty text that's often referenced but rarely read." Knott's article in last weekend's SMH is a really helpful corrective that points past the sloganeering. He makes the point that the Gonski review argues that all schools continue to receive taxpayer funding. The fact that the greatest need is in the public sector means that most of the increase in funding would be directed towards that sector.

2. No school is over-funded, in the sense of receiving more than they are supposed to 

Funding entitlements are determined by the Australian Education Act which was passed by the Australian Parliament in 2013, and independent schools like Inaburra are funded exactly in accordance with this legislation. The discrepancies that are being labelled 'overfunding' stem from the need to transition from the old funding model to the new one. When a new funding model is introduced, there will always be schools that are found to be above or below their new entitlement; and that good public policy demands transition arrangements to ensure that school communities funded above their new entitlement have time to adjust to changed conditions.

3. School funding in Australia needs reform, but it will be tricky to manage

There is no getting around the fact that school funding in Australia is a mess. For various historical, political and structural reasons, there is lack of transparency, lack of equity and lack of accountability associated with the public funding of schools. Reform is needed but we don't have a blank slate upon which we could design an education system from first principles. It is unrealistic and non-commercial in the extreme to imagine that the egg can be unscrambled. The independent school sector in NSW provides or supports employment for more than 53 000 people. The direct contribution of the sector is more than the accommodation industry in NSW, more than the air travel industry, and more than the automotive repair and maintenance industry. Perhaps even more signficantly, 35% of Australian school students attend non-government schools. Politics is the art of the possible; so many people are directly or indirectly connected to the non-government school sectors that it is hard to see how a radical reformation of school funding is possible. 

There is lots that still remains to be said, including the connection between funding and improved outcomes, the relationship between government-owned schools and community group-owned schools, the expectation that all students should receive public support in resourcing their education, and so on. However, time and attention are limited. I apologise if all of the above is yawn-inducing or of no interest to you. In all likelihood, you won't have read all the way through to the end if that is the case. I must confess that this stuff doesn't make my heart beat any faster. Nonetheless, since a new funding model will be developed in the months ahead, these are matters worth watching. There appears little doubt that any changes to the existing funding model will have an impact on Inaburra since we are currently funded exactly in accordance with the model. I will keep the community informed.


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