It’s the debate that seems to never end – how to ensure an equitable school funding system while both major political parties do not see eye-to-eye on the issue.
However, Peter Goss, school education program director at the Grattan Institute, told The Educator that “tight budget and parliament” presents an opportunity for the nation’s leaders to resolve the current school funding deadlock.
Pointing to the rare combination of low inflation with the possibility for a $7bn “war chest” from school funding realignments, Goss said the Federal Government could potentially deliver all of the needs-based funding and invest in teaching for the same amount of money.
Goss’ comments come after Federal Education Department data revealed some private schools are receiving taxpayer funding almost three times greater than their entitlements.
The data – which was tabled as part of 2014 Senate Estimates – showed that in 2014, more than 150 private schools across Australia received funding above their Schooling Resourcing Standard (SRS).
‘Some public schools are overfunded too’
Goss said that while the findings were significant, equal attention should be paid to overfunded schools in the public and Catholic system, but added that the data would not show this because government and Catholic schools are treated as a system.
“There is a much bigger game here, which is needs-based funding. We can potentially deliver all of the needs-based funding and invest in teaching for the same amount of money,” Goss said.
“A few years ago, the funding rates in Commonwealth legislation were fixed at a rate that, at the time, was sensible. However, the world changed. This hit Australia last year when inflation and wages growth started dropping.”
Goss added that the trajectory of overall funding is fixed and higher than is needed to cope with wages growth.
“At the same time, we have schools that desperately need more funding, because they never received their full needs-based funding,” he said.
“If we apply the principles rigorously to ensure that overfunded schools don’t get more money, and under-funded schools are given the funding they need, we can free up – at a Commonwealth level – a $7bn war chest between 2018-2021.”
Goss pointed out that with this, and a “comparable amount from the States”, the figure would be enough to deliver needs-based funding in full over six years.
“Some people want that funding to occur over two years, but realistically that’s not going to happen under the current government,” he said.
“Funding is always incredibly tough a subject. The problem we’ve often had is that we’ve taken school funding as a zero-sum game. When that happens, the language used is like trench warfare.”
Leaders must focus on what they agree on
Goss suggested that Federal leaders establish the points they agree on and then negotiate from there.
“For example, we agree with the principle of needs-based funding, the need for more use of evidence in practice and with raising the status of the teaching profession,” he said.
“So let’s start at the points we agree on and then see whether we can use this window of opportunity created by the low inflation environment, and ask whether we can deliver something that’s really worth having within the same current budget envelope as the Coalition put in their 2016 Budget.”
Goss said that if leaders can accomplish this, they would begin “playing a much different game”.
“As tough as it might seem now, we will have a real shot at getting this complex issue resolved,” he said, adding that leaders should have “a red hot crack at it”.
“Otherwise, we will sit here saying ‘we put a little more money above wages across the whole system but still we need $4bn a year to deliver full needs-based funding, and the year after that, and so on.
“We shouldn’t be spending more money if we don’t need to. If we can deliver the goal for the same money, you take tough decisions. In the Federal parliament, only things that can attract a degree of bipartisan support have a hope.”