By Dr Glenn C. Savage. Senior Lecturer in Education Policy at the University of Melbourne and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow
Australian school funding is in its deepest level of crisis in decades.
Not only has the Coalition walked away from the landmark Gonski school funding reforms established under Labor, but it has also flagged the radical idea of cutting federal funding to public schools altogether.
Such moves seriously threaten the policy settlement established by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in the 1970s, which has seen the federal government play a crucial role supporting states and territories to make schools more equitable.
The Coalition has also failed dismally to provide clarity over its future intentions, which has angered states and territories and left funding arrangements dangling on a knife-edge.
Haphazard politics and bad political messaging
Until recently, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said he would establish a new funding deal to replace the Gonski model through agreement with states and territories. But no such deal has emerged.
Instead, a baffling range of confusing and contradictory messages have emerged from the Coalition in relation to school funding.
The political circus intensified in the lead up to the Council of Australian Governments meeting in March, when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull floated the idea of letting states raise a share of income taxes to pave the way for a federal retreat from funding public schools.
Bizarrely, Turnbull suggested the federal government would continue funding private schools and would maintain a key role in the development of national schooling policies.
Turnbull’s idea came across as a flippant thought bubble, devoid of any evidence the move would generate better outcomes for schools, teachers or young people.
Turnbull and Birmingham also performed miserably when asked to explain what the plan might look like in practice or why it was even necessary in the first place.
Several states and territories hit back hard.
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, for example, pointed to an erosion of trust between the federal government and the states, and reiterated the importance of future reforms needing a sound evidence base.
Unsurprisingly, Turnbull’s ‘once in a lifetime’ tax reforms were dead in the water in just a few days, leaving a gaping lack of clarity ahead of the budget about what the Coalition has in mind for schools.
Rethinking the federal government’s role
While the Coalition’s tax plan was ill-conceived, its motivations should not be dismissed as the plan signals a deeper shift taking place towards reframing the role of the federal government in Australian schooling.
In the context of debates associated with the Reform of the Federation White Paper, the Coalition is clearly re-evaluating the roles and responsibilities of governments in schooling, and testing the waters of opinion on the matter.
While reform of Australia’s messy federal system is undoubtedly needed, we should not be fooled into thinking the remedy for the problem is for the federal government to simply cut billions of dollars in school funding.
Such a move will just mean less money for the schools that need it most and will do little or nothing to improve the functioning of schooling.
A retreat in federal funding is also dangerous socially, as it could risk Australia going down the same path as the USA, where there are unconscionable inequalities in school funding between states.
It also has clear potential to drive a new wedge between the already cavernous public/private school divide.
A new era of evidence-less policy
The policy position motivating the Coalition’s approach to school funding rests on highly dubious claims.
Winding back federal funding, for example, only makes sense if we believe the funding of schools bears little relation to improving educational outcomes.
This is exactly what Birmingham wants us to believe when he repeats the claim that funding is of less importance than other features of schooling, such as curriculum or quality teachers.
The problem is, not only is adequate resourcing needed to develop good teachers and curriculum, but there is also a formidable body of evidence demonstrating that money makes a huge difference when channeled into evidence-based practices shown to improve student outcomes.
This is why the recent Victorian Bracks Review into school funding has recommended a new system of strategic audits that would require schools to report on how effectively funds are being used to improve outcomes for students.
Such accountability measures would not replace the need for substantial funding commitments to schools, but would help ensure there is more quality control over how money is spent, and could also reduce ineffective spending in the future.
Indeed, the Bracks Review argued forcefully that the Gonski money the Coalition has walked away from is absolutely central to maintaining a quality school system.
As next week’s budget draws near, it is safe to conclude the Coalition’s current approach to school funding is a mess.
If the Coalition keeps going down the current path, its most enduring achievement will be the dismantlement of the equity-based federal funding settlement achieved under Whitlam and the dawn of a new era of evidence-less policy making.
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