The commonwealth’s role in education reform

This caught my eye, courtesy of a tweet from the ever alert @BronwynHinz (and in her area of speciality too): Victorian Education Department Secretary Richard Bolt offering advice to the commonwealth that they should leave leadership of school reform to the states. See the Oz article here

Commonwealth – state relations in regard to education are interesting, to say the least. I suspect Bolt is essentially right, but there is a major stumbling block to such change and it relates to the increasingly interventionist role the commonwealth has played in education in recent decades. Put simply, education ceased to become a states only affair when the commonwealth decided to start directly funding school programs and, in particular, to fund non government schools.

The impact of this decades long commonwealth intervention is evident in the mess Bolt refers to in this article. We have a three tier school education system – public, independent and Catholic – and opaque funding  mechanisms which are resulting in segregation of schooling, declining absolute and relative performance against international benchmarks and risk to Australia’s long term productivity. The commonwealth, under the current government, claims a ‘special relationship’ with non government schools and wishes the states to accept all responsibility for public schools. The states have inadequate funding and limited capacity to moderate the inequities between funding of schools in different sectors.

The issue here is whether the current mess Bolt refers to, largely attributable to commonwealth intervention in a realm where it has no constitutional responsibility, can be resolved without the commonwealth itself paying a role. In a sense, that’s what Labor’s Gonski reforms were about.

If Bolt’s argument is to carry the day, and it’s likely to have support from other jurisdictions, a key question will be how to deal with the matter of school funding. Victoria, like most other states, accepted the principle behind the Gonski reforms: that funding should be based on student need. But without a flow of additional funding from  Canberra to the states to support implementation of such reform the states will have little choice but to perpetuate the current arrangements.

Bolt’s comments also leave a number of other questions hanging. If the commonwealth is to have a diminished role in education where does that leave the national curriculum and the work of recent years to develop national standards for teachers and principals? And does the commonwealth have any role at all in tending to the national interest? Presumably COAG education meetings continue but with the commonwealth playing a supporting rather than directional role. I suspect the truth already is that the states generally look after their own interests first and engage with the commonwealth as a matter of necessity given that Canberra is where all the money lies.

Another part of the backdrop here is the recent Williams High Court case and the impact that may have on direct federal funding of school programs. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Victoria would choose to make such a statement at this time. The commonwealth is surely looking closely at the need to direct more funding through the states, putting them somewhat closer to the driver’s seat.

There’s logic in having the commonwealth act in accordance with its constitutional responsibilities, which excludes school education. But if the states have increased responsibility they will need to do something about the current funding mess and they will need additional funding to do it. How do you get Canberra to hand over more funding for something they have no control over? National interest and the principles of federalism sit on one hand, on the other sits the base political and ideological interests of the major political parties. It’s likely federal Labor will be more attracted to Bolt’s argument than the LNP, provided it can ensure the funding equity issue is addressed – something that even with the best of intentions they made a mess of with Gonski. The LNP on the other hand, despite its advocacy of small government, is more likely to have an ideological concern about tinkering with the relativities of funding between public and non government schools.


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