Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Gonski Report: An Explainer

The review panel responsible for the recently-released Gonski report has put itself under the gun - by mid-2012 it will set government funding amounts for primary and secondary students.

The new schooling resource standard (SRS) will give schools the same base amount per child, around $10,500 for secondary and $8,000 for primary students. On top of the SRS, extra money will be provided for children with disadvantages (disabilities, English language learners, etc.).

The new SRS model is simpler than the current funding model. All schools - government, independent and Catholic - will be funded using the same base model.

Under the new model, government schools will get 100% of the SRS via a combination of state and federal funds. In the wealthiest private schools, about 80% of the SRS will be funded by parents. As a school’s estimated parent contribution decreases, the government contribution increases. A small Catholic school in the Outback could receive over 90% of its funding from the government.

The government has simplified a funding formula—less paperwork with a similar bottom-line—so why the kafuffle? First, some people in state governments are wary of federal intrusion. Traditionally the states fund government schools while the federal government provides support for private schools. The new SRS rolls federal, state and parent contributions into one amount.

But before worrying about the details of funding formulas, let's step back and ask a bigger question. SHOULD the government—federal, state or otherwise—be funding private schools?

While balancing on the federal-state tightrope, the Gonski review has sidestepped this question. But the influx of press around Gonski has re-kindled the “public-funding-of-private-schools" debate. Public school supporters fear increased government funding of private schools will lead to middle-class flight, while non-government schools, particularly Catholic schools, think federal funding is crucial for effective schooling.

Using the 2011 figures in the Gonski report, parent contributions are 54 per cent for independent, 24 per cent for Catholic and four per cent for government schools.

These pie charts show how much is spent on an average student. You can look up the funding percentages of schools in your neighbourhood on the MySchool website.

Below are some of the arguments for and against government funding of non-government schools.

For government funding of non-government schools...
  • Struggling middle-class parents won’t be able to afford tuition if government support disappears.  Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne argues that the new budget could be as much as $1.3 billion short, and that this difference will result in higher parent fees. This would particularly impact middle-class parents.
  • Private schools save the public system money. Dr. Scott Prasser estimates private schools save the public purse $8 billion. He thinks public schools should pursue more private donations and worries  about the lack of firm policy support for non-government schooling.
  • Private schools are underfunded for students with disabilities. Currently, non-government schools receive less money for students with disabilities. The Executive Director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Bill Daniels believes it will be even harder to support disadvantaged students under the Gonski report's proposal to cancel targeted program funding.


Against government funding of non-government schools...
  • Rich families don’t need subsidies for their private choices.  “We don't expect subsidies for business class or motorway tolls, why should  a struggling worker on an average wage of $50,000 be asked to contribute to the education of the [rich]?" writes David  Zyngier, a former school principal and senior lecturer at Monash University.
  • Some private schools get too much government money. Australian Educators Union Federal President Angelo Gavrielatos  argues  that MySchool data shows that some wealthy schools are receiving more  government money per child than state schools. “How is it that we  have reached the point where private schools serving wealthier families receive thousands more in government funding per student  than public schools serving low-income communities?” The Greens  party also worries that private schools are benefitting unfairly.
  • Resources should go towards keeping middle-class kids in public schools. Professor Richard Teese at the University of Melbourne believes that middle-class flight will create sinks of disadvantage.    

To make matters complicated, school funding is not a black-and-white, government-or-private issue. Shades of gray—like tax benefits and school vouchers—exist.

One things is clear: the current system is confusing and inefficient. In its response to the Gonski report, the Government said this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform school funding. Educators and parents are invited to help develop the new system.

The time for input is now. The review panel is finalising its SRS model this winter to be ready for the 2014 school year. The Government has opened a rare window of opportunity—what will your view be?

Funding model in the Gonski report

Dr. Squirrel Main is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne's Graduate School of Education. Her PhD was in education reform.

This article was written for the YourView website.

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