Five steps to fair school funding
by Peter Goss
Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 29 August
Scott Morrison has given his new Education Minister, Dan Tehan, the task of sealing a deal on school funding. Here’s how Minister Tehan can pull it off, to the benefit of all Australian students and without resorting to special side deals.
Step one: focus on what matters most. The gap between Australia’s educational haves and have-nots is getting wider. The brutal reality is that, on average, disadvantaged students learn less during school than their more advantaged peers. Attending a disadvantaged school compounds the loss.
Disadvantaged year 9 students (for example, whose parents didn’t finish school) are on average three years behind in NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy compared with those from advantaged families (e.g., whose parents have a bachelor degree).
Disadvantaged schools typically find it harder to attract well-qualified teachers or provide adequate educational resources, and this resource disparity is bigger in Australia than any other country in the OECD.
Yet the government schools which educate the bulk of Australia’s most disadvantaged students receive on average less than 90 per cent of their funding targets, while non-government schools that do less heavy lifting are much closer to being fully funded, at least on average.
Proper needs-based funding won’t solve everything, but it is essential.
Step two: affirm the principles of needs-based funding. Under both Labor and Coalition versions of the Gonski model, every student receives a base amount of funding. When parents choose a non-government school, base funding is discounted according to their capacity to contribute. Students with higher needs attract more funding regardless of their parents’ capacity to contribute.
Before 2017, non-government school systems were funded as if all their schools’ communities had equal capacity to contribute. This so-called “system-weighted average” gave a huge subsidy to high-socio-economic status Catholic primary schools. They were treated as average rather than advantaged, and so they could charge dramatically lower fees than similarly advantaged independent schools.
The 2018 Chaney review of school funding said this should change. It argued that “non-government school communities with the same capacity to contribute should attract the same level of government support”.
Tehan, and Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, should explicitly affirm the Chaney principle – or explain why they reject it.
A related issue is how money is given to Catholic and other systems that operate multiple schools. Currently, these systems receive their government funding as a lump sum and then redistribute it according to their own view of need. This principle should be reaffirmed – since each system understands the needs of its schools better than Canberra – so long as the allocation mechanisms are transparent and needs-based.
Step three: agree on a compromise that acknowledges everyone’s concerns. I propose a compromise with four elements. First, acceptance that the system-weighted average will not be reinstated. Second, commitment to move to an income-based SES score model, with time to review and refine the model. Third, extra transition time – say until 2027, rather than the currently proposed 2023 – for all non-government schools that end up overfunded under the new SES score. Fourth, a sensible interim funding plan from now until 2021, maybe with some extra dollars attached.
There are no special deals in this compromise. In fact, it would increase consistency across sectors. And it addresses the key concern of many independent schools (that the system-weighted average might return) and most moderate Catholic school leaders (that they are disadvantaged both by the current SES score and by the current Gonski 2.0 transition model that lumps underfunded and overfunded schools together).
Step four: focus on what will be gained, rather than what may be lost. While it is easier for players in this debate to focus on what they fear losing, in fact all groups would benefit from bipartisan embrace of needs-based funding and Chaney’s proposed update to the SES score model.
As the most underfunded sector, government schools will get the fastest growth in future Commonwealth funding. They will also benefit from the new incentive mechanism the Commonwealth has introduced to encourage states to lift their funding.
Catholic schools will get substantial extra funding from an SES score based on family income, as well as from the extended transition timing. They should also feel vindicated by confirmation that the previous area-based model was biased against them.
Independent schools will welcome the permanent removal of the system-weighted average. Many less well-off independent schools will also reach their funding targets sooner than under previous legislation.
Step five: find a common task to throw ourselves into. The longer we stay clean from special deals, the easier it will be to avoid the temptation of a special deal. So we should use the classic approach of throwing our energy into something else. Luckily, there is an obvious candidate at hand: how can we improve the teaching and learning in our schools and lift outcomes for all Australia’s students?
That debate should be enough to keep all of us busy.