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Williams, the States and School Funding

Last week’s high court ruling in regard to the school chaplaincy program has much wider implications than the immediate case brought by Ron Williams. A layman’s interpretation of the verdict is that the high court held that the funding of the chaplaincy program was unconstitutional because it fell outside the commonwealth’s constitutional and legislative authority.

At risk now for the commonwealth are a raft of arrangements through which it funds areas such as local government and programs, possibly including schools. The Gillard government’s workaround following Williams’ previous high court win has been found to be invalid. Does Canberra now sit and wait for challenges or does it become proactive? Given the number of programs which are potentially at risk it probably has no choice but to do the latter.

This will, in many cases, require the commonwealth to direct funding through the states. And while Canberra still has the money and can call the shots, the states would certainly be more empowered under these arrangements. Already, for example, we’ve seen the SA and ACT governments staking a claim for the reinstatement of secular school counsellors instead of chaplains to provide schools with choice.

While the implications of the Williams case could be widespread, I’m particularly interested in what it might mean for education funding. The commonwealth has no direct constitutional responsibility or authority regarding schools. It is conceivable that the current arrangements through which it directly funds non government schools are at risk. If that proves to be the case, you’d expect the solution to be an arrangement under which funding is channelled through the states, as is currently the case for public schools.

This would clearly change the federal- state dynamic and put the states in a more powerful position than at present. Commonwealth grants can be tied to specific purposes, but states are under no obligation to accept them. The states, notwithstanding Queensland and WA who have come late to the party, have made it clear that they want needs based funding for schools and were expecting the commonwealth to honour the Gonski agreements they signed up to before the last federal election. It would be no surprise if some states, most likely NSW in the first instances, used such a new environment to further push the commonwealth on funding. It could effectively wedge Canberra by threatening the passage of funds to the non government sector.

The non government school sector has enjoyed considerable political leverage in Canberra over the last two decades and particularly under the coalition. The LNP has, according to Christopher Pyne, a special relationship and responsibility for non government schools. The non government school sector would now have to fight on several state fronts. It is quite capable of doing so, but with all funds now passing through the one authority there would be some immediate challenges for them.

Firstly, funding would be more transparent. State funding allocations would be made with understanding of the total funding package for all schools and, presumably, the equity of these arrangements. Grandfathering clauses to preserve the entitlements of upwardly mobile non government schools instituted under PM Howard would be immediately under threat, for example. And surely any new federal funding formula, which Pyne must turn his hand to at some time, would be subject to an increased level of scrutiny by the states.

If the states are in a position of directing all funding to all schools, they could expect to be subject to some of the heat now directed at Canberra for perceived inequities in the current model, and there are plenty. Pyne believes the states have a responsibility for public schools. If they live up to this responsibility then there will be some change to school funding arrangements. Supporters of public education should be watching with interest the fallout from the Williams case.

Note: as a backgrounder this article from The Conversation following Williams’ 2012 case provides some useful perspective

 

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