My School lifts the lid on state school funding mess
It would be funny if it wasn’t so predictable. The original opponents of My School - the Greens, State teachers unions, public education spruikers and the like - who at first campaigned against publishing schools performance data claiming it would lead to the stigmatisation of selected schools, have now done a complete reversal.
Now, their line is that My School confirms what they have said all along - that private schools are overfunded, and that federal funding of independent schools is grossly unfair. From being condemned at first, My School has morphed into a Trojan Horse for tired old positions on independent school privilege and State school disadvantage.
Typically though, what the State education spruikers conveniently ignore is that My School offers as many insights about the fairness of public funding of State owned schools as it does about the traditional public versus private debate.
Simply said, My School bells the cat on how the States have skewed their own funding arrangements - towards their preferred top end selective schools and after that, to the special needs schools at the lower end.
With this mix, it is the local comprehensive school that singularly misses out. Pity those children in State schooling who are not in a selective school or a school with special needs assistance.
The public school lobby would have you believe that schools policy is merely a private versus public construct. As one trick ponies their solution is simple - cut funding to private schools and redistribute it to public schools. But this ignores that the structure of schooling is multi-tiered. We know for example that in the independent schooling is either independent low fee, independent high fee or Catholic systemic. But what of the public sector?
The advent and enlargement of the selective school sector has altered the fabric of public schooling fundamentally. The top selective schools are private school equivalents – their difference being that they are free to users because they are paid by the taxpayer.
Selective schools are promoted because they are the best in class. That much is known. But what is not known is that the State educationalists practice adverse selection of their own - not by price but by supply. By taking the best and brightest students out the system and concentrating them in given selective schools they advance their cause. The remaining schools become residual.
State bureaucracies would like us to believe that public schooling is one and the same, when in fact, the best students are creamed off into selective schools.
It is little wonder that places at selective State schools are so highly sought. A place in a selective school is the equivalent of gaining a top class education without charge - not dissimilar to gaining a prestige university place without paying HECS.
It is little wonder that the system has spawned a cottage industry in private tutoring prior to selective admissions exams. In tutoring their children for entry into a selective school, parents are acting rationally - paying private tutoring fees early in the child’s development to gain a taxpayer funded selective place later. And because the public school spruikers need the selectives as their Trojan Horse, they see no problem with parents coughing up expensive tutoring fees early on - as opposed to paying for them later with private school fees.
Of course, there would be no problem with this approach if the State educationalists funded scarce selective school places on a needs basis, just like they demand from the Federal Government in their funding of independent schools. But they don’t.
Take for example North Sydney Boys High School, which has school socio economic index almost identical to that of Newington College and has 70% of its student population in the top 25% of household incomes. While North Sydney Boys enjoys State government recurrent funding of $8,313 per student, Macquarie Fields High School, in Sydney’s South West, receives funding of only $7,438 per student.
Similarly, NSW’s top ranking State school, James Ruse Agricultural High School with 66% of its students in the top income bracket, enjoys funding of $8,490 per student while Cabramatta High School, again in Sydney’s South West, receives the lesser amount of $7,861 per student. It is possible to go on. Fort Street selective school in Sydney’s inner west, the alma matter of so many left leaning politicians and members of the legal fraternity, receives the same as Cecil Hills High School in Sydney’s outer suburbs.
Contrary to what the public school spruikers will tell you, My School confirms that education can only ever be seen as a private, public partnership. There is no conceptual difference between a parent aiming for a publicly funded selective school place with expensive private tuition or a parent that chooses to support an independent school directly via school fees and contributions.
Both value private education in some form. And given that State educationalists are not about to put the selective genie back into the comprehensive school bottle, the only way to ensure equity in public funding is to have student centred funding and to allow the market to set public school fees just like what occurs in the independent sector.
There can be no fairness in allowing well-to-do families free ride the selective public school sector at the expense of those less advantaged or the taxpayer. By providing a fixed educational entitlement covering each and every year of a student’s school life, families, irrespective of their income, are in the position to decide the educational mix that best suits their needs.
In a market based approach, public schools would see their price of service reflect their offer to students. Administrators in the high demand selective schools would set a price based on their scarcity and their value add, much like an independent school.
Given their expected added cost of service, student families exercising their entitlement to attend such schools would need to fund the gap from private means. There can be no free ride for those able to afford it.
On the other hand, for students in the residual schools, the price of service can be expected to be lower. Accordingly, any losses of educational value from attendance at these schools could be topped up by families using their entitlements to support intensive private tuition. The combination of student centred funding and public school pricing, improves fairness by ensuring that privileged families in selective schools pay their fair share and those families in the residual schools have access to additional support outside the school.
What is needed in schooling is more market and less ideology. One can only hope that the Federal review of school funding demands as much from the public school sector as the critics demand from the independents.
Alex Sanchez is a long standing ALP member, former Chairman of the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils and former Advisor to Mark Latham. He has two children in independent Catholic schools.
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