Can Julia Gillard be believed on school funding?
On face value, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to extend the current non-government school funding model for an additional year looks like a plus for Catholic and independent schools.
The socioeconomic status (SES) model is due to expire at the end of 2012 and maintaining it for one more year will give some satisfaction to non-government school parents.
In fact, Gillard’s decision on school funding is just another example of desperation politics and of a government lacking conviction. It’s apparent that the Prime Minister will do anything to win the election and that she is only concerned with short-term political gain.
The ALP government is trying to bury the school funding issue until after the August 21 election and to present itself as a friend to Catholic and independent schools. It’s understandable why.
Mark Latham’s hit list of wealthy non-government schools taken to the 2004 election, along with the infamous handshake with John Howard, have gone down in political folklore as electoral suicide.
The reality is that over 30% of primary school students now go to non-government schools, with the figure rising to over 40% at the secondary level. Education is a real BBQ stopper, especially in marginal seats where parents, at great expense, are voting with their feet and choosing the non-government school alternative.
Non-government school parents that pay taxes for a system they do not use, in addition to schools fees, expect some level of government support and since Robert Menzies introduced state aid, the history of Australian elections is one where parties that support school choice win votes.
The ALP leadership was so worried about the issue leading into the 2007 that Kevin Rudd as leader of the opposition guaranteed, if elected, that his government would maintain the Howard inspired socioeconomic funding model and assured Catholic and independent schools that funding would be maintained in real terms.
When Minister for Education, Julia Gillard also adopted a pragmatic approach to funding, arguing, “the Rudd Government has given a set of guarantees to the non-government schools… Those guarantees are that we would maintain the SES model, we would maintain the status of funding maintained and funding guaranteed. We’d maintain the way in which the Catholic system is funded and we would maintain indexation arrangements”.
On taking over from Gillard as Minister for Education, Simon Crean, repeated assurances that all would be well and implied that non-government school parents could safely vote for the ALP when he stated, “There is no schools hit list for those who want to run a scare campaign… No school will be worse off. Not a dollar will be taken away”.
Reality check. In addition to Prime Minister Gillard simply trying to bury the issue, if the ALP is re-elected there is every chance that Catholic and independent schools will lose funding when the new model is introduced post 2013.
While Julia Gillard, when Minister for Education and now as Prime Minister, portrays herself as a strong advocate of school choice her support cannot be relied upon. Not only does she refuse to guarantee that any new model will maintain funding in real terms, she is also on the record as admitting support for the current funding model, now set to expire at the end of 2013, is only temporary.
In a March 2008 interview, on being asked whether an ALP government would support the SES model on an on-going basis, the then Minister for Education, replied, “No, no, our commitment Tony was very, very clear. It is only for the next schools funding quadrennium (2009-2012), for the next four yearly period”.
In a recent interview, reported in The Australian July 31, the recently appointed Commonwealth Minister for Education Simon Crean also refused to guarantee that funding to non-government schools will be indexed on an annual basis and that funding to Catholic and independent schools will keep pace with government school costs.
Extending the SES model for an additional year is just another example of political spin and crisis management. While Gillard’s decision makes her government appear more voter friendly to non-government school parents, it does nothing to guarantee that any future ALP government will be committed to properly resourcing Catholic and independent schools.
Doubts about the ALP’s back-flip on funding are underlined by Labor’s preference deal with the Greens and the fact that there is a real chance that the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election.
The Greens’ policy includes adopting a hit-list of schools, reducing government funding by the amount schools raise locally and removing the link between the amount non-government schools receive and what governments provide to state schools.
Unlike both the Greens and the ALP government, the Abbott-led opposition has promised, if elected, to endorse the SES model and to ensure that Catholic and independent schools are properly resourced.
- Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Standards Institute and author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (Connor Court Publishing).
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