Gonski: The education union is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

by Peter Goss

Published by The Age*, Monday 19 June

As Gonski 2.0 hits the Senate, the Australian Education Union is flailing in mid-air, like Wile E Coyote in a road-runner cartoon. It doesn’t seem to realise that the ground beneath its feet – Labor’s model of Gonski – has disappeared.

Having won the philosophical war on needs-based funding of schools, the union is now in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If the amendment fails this week, government schools will get less money, not more.

It didn’t need to be this way. Hark back to 2013. Labor was desperately trying to enact the needs-based, sector-blind vision that David Gonski offered.

True to form, then opposition leader Tony Abbott did everything in his power to destroy the Gonski model. But he failed. Fearing an electoral backlash, Abbott declared a unity ticket with Labor on schools funding. The AEU, under its “I give a Gonski” banner, had achieved a huge win.

The price of that victory is well known. Special deals and the “no school will lose a dollar” promise inflated the cost of Gonski by billions of dollars. Fast-forward to the 2014 austerity budget and the AEU again held firm when Abbott reneged on the school funding promise the whole nation had heard him make.

In the 2016 budget, the Coalition upped its funding ever so slightly. The AEU still refused to budge. With an election looming, and Labor sticking to its guns, the AEU’s position was completely understandable – at that time.

But the union’s ground started to look shaky when the Coalition won the 2016 election, and Labor’s funding model (the National Education Reform Agreement, or NERA) became terminally comatose. And the school funding landscape changed irrevocably in May this year, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Gonski 2.0, flanked by his friend, the redoubtable David Gonski.

On top of a clear affirmation of needs-based funding, there were four big changes in Gonski 2.0.

First, Education Minister Simon Birmingham did what Labor could not, and reduced funding to the most over-funded independent schools. The savings from this measure are nowhere near enough to fund all government schools properly. But they are deeply symbolic.  And tellingly, the feared private school backlash never came to pass, because many underfunded independent schools will benefit and the sector overall felt the deal was fair.

Second, Birmingham cleaned up more of Labor’s special deals. His biggest change was to unwind the sweetheart deal by which no Catholic primary school parent is expected to contribute more than $1400 a year to their child’s schooling, regardless of their wealth.

Third, Birmingham moved to a “Commonwealth only” funding model, promising to deliver 20 per cent of every government school’s target by 2027 (up from 17 per cent today) and 80 per cent for all non-government schools (up from 77 per cent).

Finally, Birmingham convinced cabinet’s expenditure review committee to increase his budget for schools funding compared to 2016 – a boost that was needed to make Gonski 2.0 viable.

For the first time, a Coalition government whole-heartedly committed itself to needs-based funding. And government schools would get the fastest funding growth. Yes, the transition was too slow, and government schools would get less than under Labor. But what a win for the union.

The instant that the AEU denounced Gonski 2.0 as a con, it was clear the union had failed to adapt to the new reality. The ground it had seen as so stable, Labor’s NERA model, was gone. Just recently, the government confirmed what we all knew, that NERA’s life-support would be turned off at the end of the year.

So now, as the Senate prepares to vote on Gonski 2.0, the AEU is in the bizarre position of arguing for less money for government schools. If Gonski 2.0 is voted down, funding will revert to the 2013 Education Act. NSW would get about $60 million less than under Gonski 2.0 over the forward estimates. Victoria, $140 million less. Western Australia would get a whopping $280 million less.

The AEU is particularly pressuring The Greens to not pass Gonski 2.0. But, if the reports of a government offer to The Greens are accurate, the union is cutting off its nose to spite its face. The deal flagged in this paper on Saturday would see government schools about $2 billion better off over four years than the status quo. Yet the AEU says this deal should be rejected.

And it gets worse. With the NERA effectively dead, failure to pass Gonski 2.0 would mean that there will be no requirement for states to fund their government schools properly. In fact, states would have every incentive to reduce funding growth, believing that a future federal Labor government would bail them out.

In this cartoon, Wile E Coyote could stop attacking Road Runner and win for once. Instead, the AEU seems determined to keep running, legs spinning in mid-air, with no solid ground beneath it. But this is not a cartoon. This is a tragedy.

*Please note: originally published in The Age as ‘NSW schools could be $60 million worse off due to union stance on Gonski 2.0’