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Decision time for school funding

By David Robertson - posted Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Schools funding is firmly back on the political agenda as we move closer to 2018 when the Federal Coalition is committed to implementing a new funding model. It is understandable that schools are becoming increasingly frustrated given there are no firm proposals on the table in terms of what a new funding model might look like. This is hardly conducive to good school financial planning and stability.

Over the past five years, school funding has been one of the most hotly contested areas of public policy in Australia. Sometimes it is hard to understand why. There is broad and bi-partisan acceptance that every student, no matter which school they attend, is entitled to public funding support. It is also universally accepted that students with high needs should receive the highest level of public support – a position that has remained firmly enshrined in past and present school funding models.

The complexities of schools funding, involving both the Federal and State Governments, and parental contributions in the case of independent schools, as well as the historical funding arrangements for different sectors and states and territories are the key blockages to moving to a funding model that is transparent and equitable and has broad community acceptance.

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The myths and mistruths continually perpetuated about the so-called "Gonski" funding model, which commenced in 2014, are not helping either. It is doubtful that any public policy has ever been so heavily promoted for what it is not, primarily by the advocates for public education.

"Gonski" is touted as the "silver bullet for schooling", with its full implementation seen by many as the only way to reverse what has been a long-term decline in Australia's educational outcomes compared with other countries. At least Dr Ken Boston, one of the members of the Gonski Review Panel, dispelled this myth in a recent speech to the T J Ryan Foundation (14/2) in Brisbane. In his address, Dr Boston said "the Gonski Report did not see additional funding as the key to improving Australian education". However, the report did attach a $5 billion annual price tag to the funding reforms it proposed, a moot point given how the final response to the report played out.

It is true that the report advocated more funding for schools catering for students with high levels of needs, but at the same time it also rejected the long-standing needs-based funding models, at the state and national levels, that had been in place for many years.

Federal Schools Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, has rightly highlighted a number of anomalies in current funding arrangements for States and Territories and schools across the different sectors resulting from the implementation of "Gonski". These need to be addressed over time. However, the reality is that no schools funding model can start from a clean sheet; historical arrangements need to be considered and accounted for.

The Minister has some challenging decisions to make about schools funding; not only about the overall level of Australian Government support for schooling, but also how that support is allocated to states and territories, sectors of schooling and individual schools.

These decisions have to be made in the context of an alarming federal budget deficit and against a backdrop of already record levels of expenditure on schools that don't appear to have contributed to any nationwide lift in outcomes.

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The Minister's task is uninviting on a number of fronts and will require Senate support to make any changes to the legislated "Gonski" model – negotiations that are likely to be met with strong resistance.

No matter what the outcomes for 2018, sadly, it is inevitable that they are unlikely to satisfy everybody, let alone receive bi-partisan political support.

Perhaps now is the time to turn our attention to a longer-term solution. We might start again with a review of schools funding, particularly given it's now been six years since the Gonski review, which could include where the extra billions of dollars provided by the Federal Government over the past three years have gone and what they have been used for.

The prospect of reforming the existing funding arrangements and ending the long-running public-private schools funding battle could be real if we have a well-researched and fully-tested funding model with less political deals. Transparency, equity and most importantly putting students first, should be the drivers of a new model rather than historical institutional arrangements. Our best hope would be research and design of a new system in 2018/19, pilot it in 2020/21 and schedule full implementation from 2022.

Hopefully, the Federal Minister will take up this long-term challenge as part of decisions he announces for post 2018 funding.

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About the Author

David Robertson is Executive Director of Independent Schools Queensland.

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