Private School, Public Shame

Australia has come a long way-some might say the wrong way-when the Education Minister dismisses debates about equity in school funding as a diversion from what she laughably calls Federal Labor’s broad and deep reform agenda.

The Labor government’s education agenda is neither broad nor deep, nor a reform agenda by any definition of that word. Instead, Labor’s education policy approach is wasteful, inequitable and more of the same. Why? Because in what was arguably the most Faustian deal brokered by the Kevin ’07 team in the lead-up to the last Federal election, Labor promised parents who aspire to send their kids to private school, or actually do, a perpetuation of the unfair funding formula introduced by John Howard.

According to Associate Professor Jim McMorrow, this formula helps fund every independent school student in the country to the tune of $13.500. This is one and one half the amount dedicated to educating kids in the public system. It is a formula that since 1996 has seen a 37% increase in resources for kids who attend Catholic schools, a 29% increase for those at independent schools, but a mere 24% boost for the majority of kids, who attend public school. The funding flows from tax-payers to private school coffers with few strings or transparency measures attached and will do – according to the Education Minister – until at least 2012.

Gillard’s claim that complaints about such rampant inequity are a diversion from the main game of goose-stepping to the Government’s agenda is not just wrong, it’s offensive. Equity in school funding is no diversion, it’s the main moral game. What kind of parents and educators would accept such a Marie Antoinette style of funding? What kind of human beings would say, “Thanks Julia. For our kids, crumbs from the table are OK.”?

But while the government’s rhetoric and diversionary tactics are contemptible, its motive are clear. John Howard’s funding formula was designed to create more parents who send their kids to private school but can only just barely afford to do so. Some such parents may believe-wrongly as it turns out-that a steadily increasing flow of taxpayer dollars to private school coffers keeps fees lower than they otherwise would be. With just over half of NSW private school parents telling researchers that they already make large or considerable sacrifices to pay fees now, it’s little wonder the claws come out when anyone questions the status quo.

Howard’s aim was to fund schools in a way that would provoke middle-class flight from the public system and wedge the then-Opposition. He succeeded on both counts. There are no longer enough voters engaged with the public system or supportive of the values it represents to make an equitable funding regime a politically profitable policy for Labor. Thus has the foundation stone of any egalitarian and socially mobile society-a compulsory, first-rate, free and secular education for all-been transformed into a political problem for ALP politicians, who strive to keep the issue off the agenda and pillory those who debate it on any terms but their own.

This must not be a cause for despair, but hard-eyed realism. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, public education allies are as public education allies do. Politicians and parties that stand up for the values of equity and inclusion and fight for the resources required to give all Aussie kids a quality education deserve our praise. Those that don’t must hear us roar, and believe us when we say we won’t go away.

Publication history

Private School, Public Shame  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)