Go with Gonski 2.0 but tinker first

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 21 June

It’s crunch time on school funding. The Senate is due to vote today on Gonski 2.0. The crossbenchers should stare down the scaremongers and let policy triumph over politics, just this once.

Gonski 2.0 is not perfect but it is a dramatic advance on the status quo. We need to seal the deal on it so federal funding is more genuinely allocated according to student need and so Australia can finally end the funding wars and focus on other much-needed reforms that could really lift student performance.

We have two options on the table: Gonski 2.0 or the existing 2013 Education Act. (Labor’s arrangements under the National Education Reform Agreement are officially dead.)

Gonski 2.0 is clearly the better of the two proposals.

The most underfunded schools will be better off, the most overfunded schools will be brought back into line, and federal funding will be more consistent across the states and sectors. And government schools will get the fastest rate of funding growth: this is essential given that they educate the vast bulk of disadvantaged students.

The alternative is the mess created under the 2013 Act, where money desperately needed for disadvantaged government schools would continue to go to wealthy private schools, and where underfunded schools would remain underfunded for decades to come. Not only does Gonski 2.0 better target funding to disadvantaged schools, recent data shows it costs about the same across the next four years — in other words, a better result for about the same price.

But Gonski 2.0 is not perfect. The Senate crossbenchers should be using these last few hours to negotiate important improvements. As outlined in our Senate inquiry submission, the timeframe of 10 years is too slow and there is a real risk that state governments may not step up to close the rest of the needs-based funding gap.

The crossbenchers should demand that the government deliver the extra money faster and add a “ratchet” mechanism to encourage the states to properly fund their government schools.

Gonski 2.0 should require state and territory governments to commit their share alongside federal funding so that all schools receive at least 95 per cent of their funding target by 2027. Where states fail to do so, the commonwealth should reduce its share of funding to that state in a proportionate manner.

The crossbenchers should insist that an independent national schools resourcing body be set up to monitor and advise on school funding decisions. That would help take the politics out of this divisive debate.

The good news is that many crossbenchers are switched on to the improvements needed. There is an unusual alignment between the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team, One Nation and Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm.

All agree on the need for a new independent body. This isn’t dirty dealing, this is crossbench senators doing their job and supporting good policy. Despite all the evidence, there are still strong opponents of Gonski 2.0. Labor and the Australian Education Union are insisting on “the full Gonski” and claim the government plan amounts to a $22 billion cut in school funding across 10 years. But our analysis has shown Labor’s $22bn figure makes no sense. Much of its promised extra spending is not targeted at student need; it would be a wasteful extravagance.

By rejecting the 2017 amendment in favour of Labor’s election policy, the AEU’s position will mean less money will actually go to government schools. This is because the 2013 Act is the default legislated path forward, not Labor’s election policy.

Another key opponent is the Catholic system. It is the big loser under Gonski 2.0, forgoing about $4.6bn in federal funding over 10 years.

As Mark Tannock, principal of St Aloysius’ College, pointed out on this page yesterday, Gonski 2.0 removes “the averaging of individual school entitlements” that delivers generous funding to the Catholics. The Catholics argue this funding is needed to maintain “school choice” so Catholic schools can operate with low or moderate fees and remain accessible to all.

But for reasons of equity and fairness, the change must be made. Australians now overwhelmingly support needs-based funding.

There is one area, however, where the Catholics are right: Some elements of the funding formula are long overdue for review. While Gonski 2.0 removes some quirks, others remain — and the Catholics believe these disadvantage them disproportionately, and the government should review that.

Some argue against the way Gonski 2.0 cements the federal government as the majority funder of the private sector. This is a legitimate concern. A greater federal role in government schools could invite federal policy creep and duplication.

Gonski 2.0 should be improved, then embraced. Let’s end the school funding wars. Our parliamentarians must stare down the special-interest groups and stand up for the children of Australia.