Unemployed PhDs and School Funding

We have been told for years that the Gonski funding model is “sector-blind” and “needs-based”.  It is neither.

Imagine that when you catch the train to work in the money your fare is tripled because the other passengers in your carriage have wealthy neighbours. You would regard that as outrageous. Yet that is how the Gonski school funding model operates.

Actually, it’s worse. If you are a child from a poor family attending a non-government school whose other students have an unemployed PhD-holder as a neighbour, your school will be expected to simultaneously cut your fee because the other students’ neighbour is unemployed and increase it because that neighbour has a PhD.

If this funding model is so rational, why is it not applied to Medicare rebates or the pharmaceutical benefits scheme, other funding arrangements that supply public money to private entities in the pursuit of public purposes?

We can look at the application of this model in schooling by comparing two Catholic schools, but the model punishes all schools that take students from middle-class areas and yet want to keep their fees low so that poor children can attend them.

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 last year, 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 is coupled with a $5,491 reduction in support. In other words, the funding model says a rich family in Euroa should pay $1,108 for its child to go to a Catholic school but a poor family in Heidelberg should pay $6,599 ($1,108 + $5,491) for its child to go to a Catholic school. There are hundreds of cases like this.

Many sloppy claims are made of schools being “overfunded” because they get more than their school resource standard, but what is omitted is that SRS is not the national one $10,953 for each primary student and $13,764 for each secondary student but can be as little as $2,191 for each primary student and $2,753 for each secondary student. In other words, a primary school that gets as little as $3,287 is condemned for being 50 per cent “overfunded” when its total government funding is less than half the SRS.

The National School Resourcing Board is conducting a review into the calculation of the SES methodology, but the real problem is not the methodology, absurd though it is, but the concept of “capacity to contribute” behind it.

The SES model measures features that have nothing to with current financial means (e.g., education) and does not measure the income of the individual family but that of the area in which the family resides.

However, even if it did measure the financial means of the individual family, it would be a bad model because its consequence would still be to further socially stratify our schools. A school that wants to take both the middle class and poor students would not be able to because the presence of students from middle class areas would cut its government funding, push its fees up and drive the poor out into the government school.

We should promote an education system that encourages social inclusion and thus increases educational achievement. 

Contrary to well-entrenched belief, Australia is not unique in funding non-government schools. Finland fully funds them but does not allow them to charge fees. New Zealand almost fully funds them if they cap their fees.

The Gonski panel recommended using “capacity to contribute” for non-government schools only, despite the “sector-blind” label applied to its scheme, as it wanted to pressure parents to pay higher fees.

It is in the interest of the high-fee independent schools sector to keep this model because it allows them to put their fees up with no effect on their government funding. It is not in the interests of low-fee independent schools or the Catholic sector.

The Catholic sector is seeking a reduction in role that “capacity to contribute” plays in funding allocation combined with a measure of the school’s actual income. This does not go far enough because it still leaves a significant degree of discrimination against low-fee schools in middle-class areas.

Governments have a responsibility to provide education in areas that non-government sectors do not, so the government sector will cost more per student than the non-government sector.

44 per cent of Victorian secondary students attend non-government schools. The idea beloved of some that we should return to the 1950s and compel everyone to attend a government school or be financially penalised is unachievable and unjust.

The opportunity now exists for a new grand bargain, under which the governments of the nation combine with the low-fee non-government sectors and create a public education system which includes schools not owned by the government but is attended by 90 per cent of the students. Public education needs to be reconceptualised as education accessible to the public not as education in schools owned by the government. The more accessible a school is, the more government money it should get.

The federal government is probably unable to grasp this opportunity. It remains to be seen if the Labor Party and the Catholic education authorities are.

Chris Curtis is a retired teacher who has retained a close interest in educational matters and who has made several submissions on school funding.

By Chris Curtis