The Turnbull government has announced the end of the Gonski reforms to school funding. Never comfortable with the key elements – a national resource standard, needs-based, a major role for the Commonwealth – the Coalition has used a mounting budget deficit to end the greatest effort since the Whitlam era to forge a consensus on how we fund our schools.
But education reforms are not so easily buried. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, like his predecessor Christopher Pyne, plans to come up with a simple model that will target need, be transparent and focus on outcomes.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham is quick to blame teacher unions for wanting bigger education.
It will demand more accountability from the states for how they spend federal money, more autonomy for principals, and a bigger emphasis on teacher quality. That's what Pyne wanted, and before him, Julia Gillard.
Most states and territories are taking the road to self-managed schools, and no one questions the need for having good teachers. Birmingham is thus saying nothing new. But he is confirming that the modernist Turnbull government is going back to the ambivalent federalism of the past.
As education minister, Christopher Pyne also promised to come up with a simple set of alternatives to Gonski funding.
Conservative governments are the reluctant funders of public systems (whose quality they doubt) and champions of private schooling (on which they want all schools to be modelled). It is this unbalanced role that has done most to create division in Australian schooling. And it is the divisions in schooling between rich and poor, public and private, Catholic and non-Catholic, which have made reform of wide concern to Australians.
A broad coalition of interests sees in Gonski the framework for ending conflict over state aid and states' rights (Whitlam's twin shibboleths). Government and non-government schools were brought into the needs-based framework in a drive for inclusiveness by Gillard. It is because the Gonski reforms have deep roots that most state governments, all Catholic systems and eventually also the private non-Catholic sector signed up to it.
The protracted public consultation, including thousands of submissions, showed a lively and abiding interest in setting matters right.
As education minister, Julia Gillard too sought more accountability from the states for how they spend federal money, more autonomy for principals, and a bigger emphasis on teacher quality.
Why do Australians want a just and durable reform of school funding? Why do they now assume, as they could not before Whitlam, that the Commonwealth government will play a key role in supporting government schooling?
Almost all Australians today depend on their children making successful use of school. The economic stakes are high. Most young people now complete school. The majority aim at university or TAFE or undertake an apprenticeship. Unless children do well at school, these paths are often closed to them.
Historically Australians have substituted success at school and small families for once large families and only limited use of school. This long-term strategy hinges on equitable and high-quality schooling. The socially most advantaged families want a competitive edge and embrace private schooling, the least advantaged face significant challenges and depend almost wholly on how well government schools work.
Most Australians know where the balance of the national funding effort must lie, and also that this must be a national, not only state, effort.
Birmingham is quick to blame teacher unions for wanting bigger education budgets. But it is private schools, not state governments, that are leading the way on this. Both rich and poor know that money matters. In this they are opposed by conservative politicians and commentators. Neither sees merit in the smaller classes that money buys, and both denounce more government spending on government schools as waste. Both trust in the divine grace of quality teaching as proof against the adversity of any setting. This is scarcely convincing.
The children of the poor are two years behind the children of the rich, their progress is slower, they are more prone to disengage and drop out, they turn in poor VCE results and are more likely to end up unemployed. To change this, we need to reverse our priorities.
Currently we overfund the advantaged and underfund the disadvantaged. Reform is required, not another round of negotiations in place of reform.
Australians are not more wedded to equity than are other nations, but they are deeply attached to opportunity. They want a fair go.
Today's funding arrangements stand in the path of widening opportunity. Much more is spent on the schools of the rich than those of the poor. Much of what is spent on the rich comes from the public purse. Middle-class welfare drains funds from public schools and denies them access to the cultural resources of educated families. We take both money and values away from poor settings and deposit them in rich settings where students secure top marks and prestige university places.
This is not the way to extend opportunity, let alone raise standards. Reform is not going to go away while the business of opportunity is unfinished.
Emeritus Professor Richard Teese is author of For the Common Weal: The Public High School in Victoria 1910-2010.
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