the school funding wars are back

By Penny Allman-Payne, Senator for Queensland 


Over the next few months you’re going to hear a lot about “full funding” and “school choice”, tired old cliches like “money is important but so is what you do with it” and “but private school parents are taxpayers too”.

You’ll read outraged op-eds in the Murdoch papers about public schools being a hotbed of “woke” and why wealthy private schools absolutely must continue to be subsidised from the public purse.

If I sound like I’m over this already it’s because I am. Before entering the Senate I was a public school teacher for 30 years. I’ve seen the real-world effects of decades of underfunding of public schools while private school coffers swell with government largess and investment returns.

So let me cut through the bullshit a little.

As it stands, only 1.3% of public schools nationwide receive the government funding they’re supposed to. Meanwhile, 98% of private schools receive excess funding.

You read that right. Governments underfund government schools, but they overfund non-government schools.

Think that sounds absurd? It is.

From Gonski to today

In 2011 the Review of Funding for Schooling, better known as the “Gonski Review”, handed down its report. It wasn’t without its flaws, but its most significant recommendation – a recommendation that was roundly supported across the spectrum – was that school funding should be sector blind and need based. They even came up with a way of calculating this called the Schooling Resource Standard or “SRS”.

But Labor, being Labor, squibbed it.

Julia Gillard, who as Education Minister under Kevin Rudd commissioned the review, undermined its recommendations almost immediately by promising the nervous private school lobby that no school would be worse off under the new funding arrangements.

Out of this emerged a kind of Frankenstein funding arrangement where underfunded public schools were put on a “pathway” up to full funding, while overfunded private schools were put on a pathway down.

But it’s now more than a decade since Gonski and public schools are still trudging along that pathway. Even worse, since Gonski, on a per student basis, government funding to private schools has increased at twice the rate of public schools.

Labor, having postponed negotiations with the states and territories on new funding agreements by a year to conduct yet another review (there have been more than 30 reviews, inquiries or expert panels into school funding since Gonski), is turning the crank on the rhetoric machine by saying the new school deals will finally deliver “full and fair funding”.

But if the statement of intent they signed with the WA government in January is any indication that’s not what they’ll be delivering at all. 

In fact, the deal is likely to lock in underfunding for the foreseeable future because Labor has refused to rule out removing the Morrison-era accounting trickery that allows state and territories to include in their share of funding 4% of non-school costs.

I asked the government in Senate Estimates to rule these dodgy clauses out of future bilateral agreements, and they would not.

It’s also really important to understand that when people talk about “full funding” they usually mean 100% of the SRS. But here’s the thing about that: the SRS calculation is based on getting only 80% of kids in a typical school past the minimum standard.

In other words, “full funding” isn’t full funding at all.

So when the Education Minister looks down the camera and says, “We’re delivering full funding to public schools,” you should be very clear that that is absolutely not the case.

What happens next?

There is some hope.

It seems increasingly likely that Labor plans to legislate these new funding deals with the states and territories. If that’s the case the Coalition, which is very clear that it does not believe the Commonwealth should increase spending on public schools, is likely to vote against it.

That would put the Greens in balance of power in the Senate and in a position to push Labor to increase the federal share of public school funding, wind back excess funding to the private system and ditch the dodgy accounting tricks that rob public schools of billions.

In the meantime, my team and I are meeting with unions, principals organisations, teachers, parents and other stakeholders across the country.

We’re working hard to build a coalition that is willing to stand up to Labor, so we can get a better deal for Australia’s 2.6 million public school kids, and the generations of kids to come.