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Opinion Piece

Pyne was right: let’s go back to the drawing board

Originally published in SBS News, December 5 2013

It’s the role of government to fund the public school system, not to fund for-profit schools at the expense of the rest of our students, writes Simon Copland.

It’s very hard to say something like this. But here it goes. In all the furore of the last week about education funding, in many ways, Christopher Pyne was right. Well, at least he was half-right. Although the alternative he presented was far worse and the process he ran a complete shambles, he was right in one thing. We should ‘return to the drawing board’ on Gonski.

The Gonski education reforms have been problematic since the start. Announced in April this year, the reforms, based on the Gonski education report, introduced a needs-based system for education funding. In doing so, the reforms guaranteed that all primary schools would receive $9,271 per enrolled student, whilst high-schools received $12,193 per student (with loadings provided to schools in disadvantaged areas). Importantly, this funding is provided no matter what school students attend – public or private. In other words, whilst the money is provided at a system level it has the real potential to act as a voucher system, with money following students depending on which school they attend. If the flow of students continue towards private schools, this could see significant increases in investment in the private system.

As David Zyngier pointed out after the announcement of the Gonski reforms, this has the potential to significantly increase disparity in spending:

While Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose from around $3.50 for each dollar spent on public schools, to around $5 dollars between 1997 and 2007, in the past decade government funding has increased by 112% to independent schools.

Despite being touted as “school funding reform”, the government’s announcement this week in fact merely maintained the status quo. What was needed was a bolder political ambition for a fairer system, that doesn’t take from the poor to give to the rich.

This is not what a public education system is about. The maths here is relatively simple – if funding continues at this level to private schools then students who have wealthy parents will be getting a ‘top-up’ – a unique opportunity to have a greater educational experience because their parents are wealthy.

The Gonski reforms will continue the flow of public money into private schools – often private schools that are profit-making machines. That will mean more money into the pockets of wealthy school owners and students, money that could and should be spent to make our public system the best it could be.

Public money should be reserved for our public system. Public money should be reserved to make it the best public system possible, so that all kids, no matter what financial position their parents are in, are able to access the best education. And unfortunately, the ongoing pursual of Gonski does not do that – it perpetuates a system of inequality where how much money you have determines the educational outcome of your kids.

That doesn’t mean that Christopher Pyne’s potential alternative was anywhere near good enough for our school system. At one point Pyne suggested that we should return to the shocking socio-economic model of the Howard era, a policy that perpetuated funding inequality in favour of private schools. But a critique of Gonski is surely needed. Hamstrung from the start, the Gonski review provided us with a funding model that has the real potential to significantly increase funding to private schools, in turn creating an long-term gap between public and private performance.

Gonski is better than the Howard model. But it is not a good school funding model. The job of the Government is to fund a first-class public school system, not continue to fund for-profit schools at the expense of the rest of our students.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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