Fighting for Equity in Education

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Labor Again Exposed as Morally Bankrupt on Private School Overfunding

Wednesday February 1, 2017

An unprecedented unholy alliance between Tanya Plibersek and Tony Abbott on overfunding of private schools was once again revealed this week. Labor’s position on overfunding was exposed yet again as morally bankrupt, cynical and at complete odds with its supposed support for the principle of needs-based school funding.

The Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, again highlighted overfunding of private schools in an interview on ABC radio this week. He said:

If some schools under formulas that have been grandfathered for years and years are getting more than their fair share, then we ought to have a look at an adjustment process.

Labor’s response was unprincipled ’wedge’ politics at its most loathsome. Labor shadow minister on education and deputy opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek, resorted to despicable political opportunism by calling on the Minister to name the schools that would lose funding. She conspicuously refused to condemn overfunding of private schools.

In effect, Plibersek was simply re-affirming her previous endorsement of private school overfunding. In December, she said that there is no case to cut funding of overfunded elite private schools and redistribute the money to disadvantaged schools. Labor’s position on the overfunding of elite private schools is utterly astonishing and morally bankrupt. Clearly, Labor is in craven fear of enraging wealthy private schools by challenging their privileged taxpayer funding that diverts millions from public schools most in need.

The issue at stake here is that many private schools receive more funding than they are entitled to because they were allowed to keep funding that they would have otherwise lost when the current funding model was introduced by the Labor Government in 2014. This over-funding amounted to $235 million in 2014, of which the large part goes to the most privileged families in Australia. Over 70% of this goes to schools with around 50% or more of their students from high SES families.

Last September, Birmingham openly admitted on the ABC’s Q&A program that many private schools are overfunded and that it was possible that some could have their funding reduced in the future funding arrangements. He pointed out that this overfunding was part of the deal done with private school organisations by the previous Labor Government. In contrast, he said, he had never promised that you can’t take money away from wealthier schools and that he had been very cautious not to give this promise.

Plibersek immediately accused him of having a “secret hit list” of private schools and robbing private schools of funding [The Australian, 27 September 2016]. Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, accused the Turnbull Government of “going after non-government schools” and called on the Government “… to reassure non-government schools they are not about to get hit in the back of the head with a funding cut.”

As an editorial in The Age said at the time: “Labor’s approach has been contemptible”.

Plibersek’s failure to condemn overfunding of private schools this week shows that Labor’s position remains “contemptible”.

Plibersek’s endorsement of overfunding of private schools is longstanding Labor policy. Overfunding of private schools stems from the Howard Government’s “no losers” guarantee under the socio-economic status (SES) funding model introduced in 2001 whereby schools were allowed to keep funding they would have otherwise lost if the SES model had been strictly applied. The Labor Government had the opportunity to end this overfunding when it set up the Gonski review of school funding. Instead, Julia Gillard instructed Gonski that no school would lose a dollar of funding. One of the Gonski Panel members, Ken Boston, has said that this edict was “the albatross around the neck of the Gonski Panel”.

Not satisfied with this special deal, Gillard negotiated another special deal with the Catholic Church that the existing share of school funding received by Catholic schools in 2013 would be maintained in the long term. This special deal was subsequently extended to all private schools as revealed in Senate Estimates [Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Budget Estimates 2013-2014, Hansard, 5 June 2013, pp. 100, 127]. Under the deal, the funding share of public schools is not permitted to outstrip that for private schools, even though public schools enrol much higher proportions of disadvantaged students than private schools and the proportion has increased over many years.

Another special deal negotiated between the previous Labor Government and the Catholic Church allows block funding of Catholic school systems based on an average measure of their socio-economic status (SES) rather than the SES of each individual school as applies to Independent schools. In Senate Estimates last October, Birmingham admitted that this arrangement allows wealthy Catholic schools to be treated as if they are less wealthy for the purposes of their funding [Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, Supplementary Budget Estimates, 2016-17, Hansard, 20 October, p.89]. Even the right-wing advocate of free markets, Senator James Paterson, expressed surprise at how this arrangement contradicts the principle of needs-based funding: “It does not seem to make a lot of sense if the purpose is for equitable funding based on need”.

These special deals with private school organisations corrupted the integrity and coherence of the Gonski funding model which was designed to make school funding solely needs-based. They provide privileged funding for many wealthy private schools.

Private school overfunding is a protected species for Labor just as it is for Tony Abbott. Abbott has boasted of the Liberal Party’s proud history of funding Independent and Catholic schools: “It’s in our DNA”, he said [Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 2012]. Moreover, “what you will never see from the Coalition are any changes in which individual schools are the losers” [Response to Gonski, Doorstop Interview, 7 March 2012].

Plibersek and Shorten are effectively supporting Abbott. They are on a “unity ticket” with Abbott that no private school will ever lose any funding, despite many elite private schools with annual fees over $25,000 a year receiving millions in government funding.

For example, in NSW, Loreto Kirribilli received $8.4 million in government funding in 2014 (latest available figures) even though 82% of its students were from the highest SES quartile and it had no students in the lowest quartile. St Aloysius’ College received $8.4 million even though it had 92% of students in the top quartile and none in the lowest quartile.

In Victoria, St. Kevin’s College with 79% of students from the highest quartile and 1% from the lowest quartile received $11.4 million and Loreto Mandeville Hall with 76% of students from the highest quartile and 1% from the lowest quartile received $5.7 million. Haileybury College with 69% of its students from the highest quartile and 2% from the lowest quartile received $19.4 million.

This is funding that would be far better spent on the many under-resourced public schools serving the most disadvantaged students in the country. But, for Labor – and Abbott – privilege trumps equity in education.

Trevor Cobbold

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