Any hope that the federal coalition government would honour the six-year Gonski funding deals with the states that signed on in the last days of the previous government have all but disappeared. Even worse, the states have been freed from the obligations they made to increase their own education spending.
It’s possible some states may continue to lobby the commonwealth over this matter and federal Labor still appears committed to funding reform. But the federal LNP seems ideologically opposed to any attempt to create a funding model that would provide all students with an equal opportunity to succeed in education and in life. The evidence collected by the broadly based Gonski panel is being ignored and instead we have a series of ‘pillars’ around which education reform will be based. There is no evidence that these will succeed or have succeeded elsewhere. Since the Howard government freed up additional money for non government schools through a funding model for which there is scant support – apart from the chief beneficiaries – we’ve seen a widening of the equity gap in Australian education outcomes and a relative and absolute decline in performance on international tests. The top has flatlined and the bottom has fallen away. That’s what you get from a segregated education system.
Federal Labor is not blameless in this matter. It squibbed the chance to do something at the 2007 election and made a mess of the implementation of the Gonski panel’s recommendations, so much so that there exists now not one but several Gonski models. The panel’s recommendation to establish a separate body to confirm and administer funding was ignored and the frenzied activity in the dying days of the election campaign produced mixed results. But at least Labor’s heart is in the right place. Their sin was one of implementation, not of intent.
The time has come for those who believe real reform is necessary to take matters more firmly in their own hands. It’s less than three years to the next federal election and there is ample time to mount a campaign to run an ‘education’ candidate for the senate in each state. Unless there is substantial electoral reform, and even if it were to occur, there is some prospect that such a campaign could succeed. I do not profess to be an expert on voting patterns in the upper house but there is ample evidence in recent half senate elections to suggest that even a modicum of public support coupled with some strategic alliances can produce a result. Consider this:
- More than two thirds of school students in Australia attend public schools. Their parents are increasingly aware that their children are being penalised by the current funding arrangements.
- During the last election campaign polls consistently showed overwhelming support for funding reform, so much so that Tony Abbott intervened to neutralise it as an election issue by promising four years of funding support.
- Support for funding reform is cross sectoral.
- There are tens of thousands of staff in public schools who would form a willing campaign army, particularly on election day when schools are typically used as polling places.
- The Australian Education Union, if chose to do so, would have the capacity to mobilise not just its own members in every public school in every state and territory, but non AEU members as well.
- The last 30 years shows that the senate is finely balanced. Independents and minor parties can control the balance of power. Deals are done.
- There is widespread disillusionment with the major parties and both are struggling to head off the drift of support to minor parties and independents. Despite Labor’s support for Gonski and funding reform, some voters might lean to an education candidate more readily than Labor.
How many Education Senators do you need to make a difference? I don’t know, but even one would be better than none. In general I don’t see much value in single issue political candidates, but maybe this could be the exception because it goes to the heart of the kind of country we want to be. Are we a clever country? Do we want education to be a meritocracy? Are we still the land of the fair go? How can we maintain and improve living standards without lifting productivity and how do we do that without lifting education standards for all? Do we base government policy on evidence or dogma?
In the long run there will be meaningful education policy and funding reform in Australia. Declining education outcomes and the need for greater productivity will make change inevitable. Education is clearly going to be a hot topic at the next federal election and when Labor is returned to government at some time in the future there will be change. It’s just a question of how long we have to wait and what damage is done in the meantime.
Perhaps this process can be accelerated. Is the public education lobby and the Australian Education Union up for this approach?