The surprising aspect of the federal budget in terms of schools is not the refusal of the Abbott government to fund the final two years of the Gonski funding agreement. That was clearly flagged during the 2013 election campaign, notwithstanding some evasive language about a ‘unity ticket’ in an attempt to neutralise education as an election issue.
The real stunner is the decision to transfer responsibility for funding of public schools to the states. There will be federal grants to support this delivery of course, but increases will be linked to the CPI and there will no Gonski funding. The commonwealth government would have been fully aware of the reaction this would provoke from the states, and as commentators have observed it may well force the states to lobby for an increase in the GST.
What is equally unusual about this arrangement is that the commonwealth will retain control of funding for non government schools. Constitutionally the commonwealth has no responsibility for education. The government’s argument for pushing responsibility to the states was that ‘the states run public schools’. It has made no argument that the commonwealth runs non government schools and indeed is incapable of doing so. Canberra cannot have it both ways, it either assumes responsibility for schools or it does not.
Motivation for the decision could be financial, ideological or political. But it can’t be educational. Australia fares poorly against other OECD countries in terms of the gap between its highest and lowest performing students and our relative – and in some cases absolute – performance on international educational measures is declining. The period of decline coincides with the increasing level of educational segregation achieved through the rapid escalation of commonwealth funding for the non government school sector over the last 20 years. In Australia the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and nowhere is this more evident than in education.
The federal government could have pushed responsibility for funding of all schools to the states. But doing so would have placed non government schools at considerable risk because of their exposure to greater transparency in funding and the limitations of state coffers. So the government has played to its natural constituency and preserved the right to fund non government schools as it sees fit. Recent history says Canberra won’t be short of funds for this purpose.
Abbott and Pyne could also have chosen to retain some level of funding responsibility for all schools but to do so would expose them to a corresponding level of responsibility for addressing inequity and improving education outcomes. They weren’t up for this challenge.
So now the states find themselves in a very difficult situation. They have no commonwealth support for the various Gonski agreements most of them signed with the former government and they are about to inherit a bigger bill for education. Little wonder the state premiers are up in arms. If there is no more funding coming in terms of a higher rate of GST – and that would take years to eventuate – the states will need to rethink their education mindset.
State governments are co-funders of non government schools. The Victorian government, for example, has made it quite clear over the last four years that they govern for all schools. Their federal counterparts are now telling them otherwise.
In an increasingly fiscally constrained environment the states will have to make a choice about where their educational priorities lie. In Victoria funding for non government schools is pegged at 25% of that for government schools. A canny state treasurer might seek to do some cost shifting back to Canberra given that Abbott, Pyne and Hockey have made to clear where responsibility for different types of schools sits.
We should expect education to be front and centre of our next state election campaign and quite clearly it will be a major issue in the 2016 federal election where I doubt too many people will be buying ambiguous LNP statements around support for public education. Inevitably this will be the outcome of the 2014 federal budget: pitting public and non government schools against one another whereas Gonski’s panel sought to create a situation where all schools would be funded according to need.
The irony in this is that we are going to get national education funding reform anyway. Public opinion strongly supports it, that’s why Abbott so carefully sought to neutralise it as an issue at the last election. And there is a natural political cycle; Labor will be returned federally at some stage and when they do there will be school funding reform. Despite wimping it in 2010 and making something of a mess of implementation in 2012/13 there is no doubt that federal Labor is well intentioned and it now has time to rethink the policy and implementation detail. School funding reform is now in its DNA and to abandon it would be electoral suicide. The next change of federal government will usher in reform, it’s just a matter of how much damage is done in the meantime.