From The Age
Malcolm Turnbull's proposal to divest the federal government of responsibility for funding public schools, while leaving the tap on for private schools, lands the education debate at ground zero.
That's not to suggest there's zero merit in devolving power for public school funding to the states. I don't need convincing about streamlining accountability, shaking up the education bureaucracies, giving principals more autonomy over finances, teaching, hiring and firing. If this was the sum total of Turnbull's plan, I could entertain it in good faith.
Alas, his proposal includes the federal government continuing to fund private schools, a scenario as depressing as it is alarming.
Should the federal government stop funding private schools, it would in effect relinquish the modest leverage it has over them. I imagine a politician with strong convictions about education would find this a rather difficult task – and I'm not referring to Labor politicians.
This funding proposal was aired in the federal government's green paper released last year. Unsurprisingly, the then prime minister Tony Abbott flatly rejected the idea. After all, in his book Battlelines Abbott famously advocated for the Commonwealth to assume even more control over public schools, among other things. And although successive Coalition governments squeezed public education by increasing funding to the private sector, they still cared enough about public schools to strong-arm the states into correcting their supposed defects – a "Maoist" curriculum, substandard teachers, underwhelming results, insufficient reverence for the Australian flag.
Some interventions were sorely needed, others mere culture war battles; either way, the sense of mission was palpable. Interestingly, Turnbull's Conservative British counterpart, David Cameron, plans to remove all public schools from the control of local authorities and have the central government fund them directly.
Cameron says turning schools into academies will lift standards; his government would be "utterly intolerant of failure".
Against this tradition of robust meddling in public schools, Turnbull wants to deal himself out of the game. Now we have limp and uninspiring assurances that the Commonwealth will still "co-operate" with the states on curriculum and teacher performance. No more railing against the classroom Maoists.
Like an apathetic teenager, Turnbull shrugs, "whatever".
Except he's not "whatever" about private school funding, and that's galling – so galling, it's liberating.
Since Mark Latham's infamous 2004 "hit list" – the then Labor leader's proposal to boost funding to poorer public schools by slashing subsidies to wealthy private ones – a new political correctness trumpeted the end of "divisive" debates about public versus private education. The issue is so yesterday, politicians of all stripes insisted.
Even as this "so yesterday" issue remained staple dinner party conversation, keeping middle-class parents awake in spasms of guilt and indecision. Even as Labor introduced the Gonski needs-based funding model, which, while a vast improvement on the previous inequitable formula, still entrenched the private schools' existing share of taxpayer funds.
So needs-based funding was never entirely needs-based, but everyone pretended not to notice. At least now we can end the constipation about a debate that's so today. This week, NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli lambasted Turnbull's proposal as envisaging a "two-tiered education system". He even managed a dig at Turnbull's alma mater, Sydney Grammar.
Piccoli's federal counterpart Simon Birmingham accused him of "perpetuating class warfare", the standard barb, but one rarely wielded by one conservative against another.
As for "needs-based funding", Turnbull is not just refusing to fund the final two years of the Gonski reforms; he wants to handball responsibility for funding the schools that need money, and redouble his commitment to funding the schools that need for very little.
Birmingham has repeatedly asserted that when it comes to lifting educational performance, how schools use money is more important than how much is thrown at them. He is partly right. But it's curious how the government deploys this argument only when it is public school funding under the microscope.
About private schools, Turnbull says: "I suspect no federal government would retreat from funding and continuing to support the non-government school sector because there would be a concern that they would not get a fair go from state governments, who obviously would have a competing interest with their schools."
So fee-charging private schools – schools that already have the natural advantage of teaching children from privileged backgrounds – are apparently entitled to taxpayer funds so they can have a "fair go" at competing against public schools, which are obliged to take all comers.
This is not about creating a level playing field in education. It is about further rigging an already rigged system. Somehow we're meant to regard the policy as acceptable, even though common sense and the OECD tell us an inequitable education system harms economic growth.
How can Turnbull reconcile wanting to wash his hands of the schools where most Australian children get their education, with his pitch of a nimble, disruption-loving, innovative future? Maybe he'll try to neutralise Labor's support for Gonski funding with a pre-election sweetener for public schools. But maybe his narrative has already splintered and he's fatally misread the public mood.
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