Bringing fairness to education funding

May 27, 2014

27 May 2014

By Allison Orr

In Australia we like to think of ourselves as egalitarian, wanting everyone to have a “fair go”, and judging people on merit not class. Perhaps this is why the recent Budget has been so unpopular – it seems to hit hard at these ideals. We’ve seen from analysis by NATSEM that the Budget is due to hit the poorest families hardest. By also cutting education funding, the government ensures that disadvantaged and low-income families again carry the highest burden not just in the short-term, but into the future.

In his speech in Melbourne last week, David Gonski, chair of the previous government’s Review of Funding for Schooling, emphasized the role education plays in social mobility. He used the story of his own family to highlight the role education can play. He pointed out that his grandfather had very little school education, and “suffered from this detriment his entire life”. In contrast, his father had a good education and became a brain surgeon, and this experience “remains deeply in [his] mind as proof of what school and tertiary education can do for the individual and for their society”.

Gonski says he thought of this enormously while undertaking the review, and he used his recent speech to criticize the Government for its plans to cut education funding and ditch the needs-based model that was recommended by the review. Instead it is taking its cue from the Commission of Audit in indexing funding from 2018. The Audit report claimed the needs-based funding model is apparently “too complex”. However by abandoning needs-based funding, the government is turning its back on improving equality of outcomes for lower socio-economic families, and entrenching the downward spiral which sees middle-class parents desert public schools.

Earlier this year, Per Capita released a report into Australians’ attitudes towards public education,Who’s Afraid of a Public School by Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley. The report found that anxiety over educating their children has become the “issue de jour” for Australian parents, and it starts early. Parents are focusing on the education of their children even from kindergarten. Parents are planning ahead, even choosing where they will live based on schools.

And the choices available to Australian parents are in some ways unique. When you compare Australia with other OECD countries, the choice of public versus private is a real question given the size of our non-governmental sector: in Britain around 7% of the population are educated in private schools; in the US it is 10%. In Australia it is 34%, with the Catholic system accounting for most of this.

It is simplistic to argue that this arrangement offers any genuine choice. Like any other market mechanism, those with the most resources are able to exercise the most choice and negotiate the “est” schooling outcomes for their kids, as Firth and Huntley found in the report. Those who are privileged in the system tend to see markets as a way of giving people fair choices, that allow people to be masters of their own fate, when in fact, the market in education really only works for a privileged few. And our research shows that those who are in a position to choose are abandoning public schools, and students who are left behind work with diminishing social capital and teachers who are stretched from dealing with many children with complex needs.

This arrangement has led to a situation where Australian education is characterised by concentrations of both advantage and disadvantage. In particular, research that was done as part of the Gonski review showed that when compared to other OECD countries, Australian schools in particular are characterised by “a relatively stronger concentration of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools”. Increasingly, the Australian education system is stratified along socio-economic lines.

The reforms outlined in the Gonski review were designed to specifically address this issue. The review argued, and Gonski continues to argue, that education funding needs to be targeted, as advocated by Firth and Huntley in Who’s Afraid of a Public School. Simply increasing funding to schools generally is not the answer. We need to develop a needs-based funding model, sending money where it is really needed rather than where the advantage already is. This is the key to improving education outcomes across the board, and to ensuring that those who are most disadvantaged already in our society, don’t also have to face a sub-standard education. If funding cuts are needed, as Gonski suggests, then perhaps the Commission of Audit should have questioned the premise given to the review that “no school will be worse off”. Surely it makes more sense to cut taxpayer subsidies to some of our wealthier private schools than to cut funding across the board regardless of the wealth of the school or the capacity of the parents to contribute.

To keep anxious parents committed to the public system, public education needs to be great, and our research shows that in order to achieve that, we need to keep middle and high SES parents in the system. It is a collective effort and funding does matter in the choices parents make.

By any measure, we are a wealthy nation, and providing a good quality education for all is vital in ensuring that the nation’s wealth does not only go to advantage a privileged few. Our political leaders fail in their duty if citizens are left with a feeling that government funds are being prioritized to narrow interests rather than ensuring a fair go for all. As David Gonski said, we need to “ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possession”. Only then can our view of Australia as a place where anyone can overcome disadvantage and be successful stand up to scrutiny.