Education ministers from all of Australia’s governments, state, territory and Commonwealth, met on Friday to begin negotiations over school funding. Various claims have been made and strong positions taken.
The Turnbull government’s education minister, Simon Birmingham, has claimed the model of school funding famously recommended by David Gonski had been “corrupted” by deals made with different education authorities around the country before the Coalition took power.
Education minister from NSW, Adrian Piccoli, who is a member of the Liberal National Party state government, wants the Turnbull Government to roll out the last two years of Gonski funding. He has declared a “war over fairness” and accused the federal government of abandoning public schools. Other ministers echo his claims and concerns.
It is time to cut through the spin and have a hard look at what is really happening with school funding in Australia and what is called the “Gonski model”.
So who is responsible for school funding and how is it shared?
While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states, continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 1950s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing recurrent funding to all public (government/state) schools and private schools (nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent). This was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of decisions and competing agendas from different governments, it has had the opposite effect.
Since the 1970s Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of the private sector’s enrolment growth and relative need. There has been a particular surge in funding since the so-called SES (Social Economic Status) funding reforms to private schools were introduced by the Howard government, under which school fees were no longer considered by the Commonwealth when calculating their relative need, and under which the Howard government “no school would lose a dollar”, not even those found to be over-funded.
Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, an overwhelming and increasing majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools.
States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as giving a bit to private schools), but the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences what schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of this ranges from non-existent to mediocre to damaging. This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it runs neither.
And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (Victoria has had independent public schools since the early 1990s) or its ideas are bad, or impractical given the division of responsibilities and their lack of administrative expertise and capacity compared to the states in the schooling domain (a point emphasised in the Gonski report).
Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which is responsible for the national tests (NAPLAN) and Australian Curriculum, among other things.
What Gonski recommended
The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding of all sectors and all levels of government since the early 70s. David Gonski and his fellow panellists were charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. His review found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing, that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes, and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed a cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got decent opportunities and that birth lotto didn’t determine their educational outcomes.
The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc.) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that all school funding be transparent.
This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. For example to explore whether it is better to have a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more funding for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality) and then see which formulas get best results for students.
Why the 27 different agreements is NOT a ‘corruption’ of Gonski
Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements with each state and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but a reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. They were to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.
The two ‘flaws’
The “Gonski” implementation plan had two major flaws. One was the promise by Julia Gillard that “no school would lose a dollar” (not even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year.
Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”. This is why the Abbott and Turnbull governments have sought to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year of the 6 year funding agreement forged by the Gillard and Rudd governments).
The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.
Axing Gonski now cannot be justified
While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) have stagnated or fallen in most states as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs, such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (such as preschool) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their development and learning at school.
The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented. It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding increases have not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful.
Minister Birmingham announced his intention to cut funding via national media, to whom he also released some select figures. He did not shared the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers prior to their meeting to allow an informed discussion. Such moves are neither transparent nor cooperative.
The future is messy
Any new agreement on school funding would not begin until 2018. Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the “Gonksi” funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation – The Australian Education Act – which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.
So unfortunately the politicking and game playing will continue for a long time yet. I believe each government minister will do what they thinks is best for their own government’s agendas and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism. Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.
We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility all Australian governments have, not just to our school students, but also to the whole country.
Dr Bronwyn Hinz is a Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and holds a PhD in political science and education policy from the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examined how federalism influences school funding reform in Australia. She has written widely on this topic and in April she was the invited Australian speaker at Forum of Federation and UNESCO symposiums on federalism and education policy in the 21st century. A version of this post first appeared on her personal blog and thoughts on this blog are her own and don’t necessarily reflect those of her current or previous employers. For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of her website, and in her PhD.