The Turnbull Variation on the Gonski Variation on the Howard School Funding Model

Chris Curtis

The Turnbull government has decided to endorse the Gonski funding model for schools but do it more cheaply than Labor intended. This not surprising because the Gonski funding model is the Coalition’s 2001 socio-economic status funding model under a new name, “capacity to contribute”, and saving money is a necessary budget strategy. This move has outraged Catholic education authorities because of what it will do to their schools. Other schools will be equally damaged, but the Catholic system is by far the biggest and the most organised in the non-government sector, so it is the one we hear most from.

Behind a smokescreen of “needs-based”, “sector-blind”, “over-funded” and “27 special deals”, the Coalition is entrenching its own class-based socio-economic status funding model, the one that funds schools according to how well off the students’ neighbours are, not according to the school’s own fees and other income. The Turnbull government is actually cutting spending because spending is legislated in the Australian Education Act. That act has to be changed for the spending to change. The changes proposed are to lower the act’s indexation rates, smooth out the “capacity to contribute” tables and remove system-wide SES determination. All these will take money from Catholic and other schools.

My School shows that St John’s, Euroa, charged $1,108 in fees and the like for each student while St John’s, Heidelberg, charged $1,698. Yet, according to the School Funding Estimator, the Turnbull government wants to give St John’s, Euroa, $10,238 per student next year but St John’s, Heidelberg, only $4,747, just because students at the latter have wealthier neighbours than students at the former. A $590 increase in fees means a $5,491 reduction in support. But, if St John’s Heidelberg dropped its fees by $590, it would not get a $5,491 increase in government funding. It would get a precisely zero increase because the fees a school charges have nothing to do with the level of support it gets. Yet this model is almost universally reported as “needs-based” and “sector-blind”.

The Catholic education authorities will attempt to do a special deal, though it won’t be called that because “special deals” are bad – though 27 “different pathways” are good. This would be a serious mistake to add to the mess crested by the Catholic education authorities’ previous serious mistakes – their acceptance of the Howard government’s socio-economic status funding model in 2004, the consequence of which has been 13 years of their schools being called “over-funded” by the public education lobby, and their failure to propose any funding model at all to the Gonski review in 2010, the consequences of which have been the Gonski panel’s endorsement of that SES model and several months of their schools being called “over-funded” by Simon Birmingham.

The Catholic education authorities are complaining about how “capacity to contribute” is measured and are therefore probably suggesting more refined methods of measurement. The problem is the whole concept of “capacity to contribute”, not how it is measured. The Gonski model funds students according to how well off the neighbours of the students in the school are.   Students have their funding adjusted according to the sector they are in.

The consequence of this model is that schools that take student from middle-class areas but keep their fees low so that poorer families can attend them are forced to put their fees up, driving poorer children out of them into the local government school.

I have been pointing out the faults in the Gonski funding model since the day it was released, and that was five years ago. I have kept challenging the idea that a student’s funding should be cut, by as much as 75 per cent, because the other students in the school have wealthy neighbours. I have kept challenging the idea that a disadvantaged student’s loading should be cut, also by as much as 75 per cent, because the other students in the school have wealthy neighbours, which is what the Gonski model required but not what the Gillard government legislated. I have kept challenging the claim that certain schools are “over-funded” when they are correctly funded according to the genuinely needs-based model that they were originally placed on. I have kept explaining that the Gonski model is the Howard model with a new name, “capacity to contribute”. I have kept asking why the media does not explain how the Howard/Gonski model actually works.

There is no logical reason that the fees a school charges should be adjusted by the wealth of the neighbours of the students or even that of the students’ families. Our Medicate rebates are not cut because our doctor has other patients with wealthy neighbours. Our PBS rebates are not cut because our pharmacist has other customers with wealthy neighbours. Our NDIS support packages are not cut because our provider has other clients with wealthy neighbours. Our children’s kindergarten funding is not cut because it has other children with wealthy neighbours. Our children’s government school funding is not cut because it has other children with wealthy neighbours. No one ever attempts to justify the funding model. They just repeat “needs-based” and “sector-blind” as substitutes for argument.

Nor is the issue how “capacity to contribute” is measured, which is what the Catholic education authorities seem to be complaining about. The issue is the concept itself.

All schools should be funded on the same principle, but the method of calculating that funding has to be rational and just. We need to reduce social stratification in education. That means supporting low-fee schools irrespective of the wealth of the neighbours or of the families that use them. Countries like England and Finland fully fund non-government schools that don’t charge fees. New Zealand almost fully funds non-government schools that charge low fees. We ought to do the similar.

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