Opinion: Busting the myth of 'sector-blind' school funding

Opinion: Busting the myth of

The Federal Government's latest change to its funding formula for Catholic and independent schools has been met with the usual wails of horror from opposing political camps.

Cries are especially loud among unions, public education advocacy groups and commentators who make a decent living from the politics of outrage concerning school funding in our nation.

While the reform has spurious elements, including an ill-defined $1.2bn "choice and affordability fund" for private schools, the primary change is a step in the right direction for needs-based funding.

By providing a better measure to assess parents' capacities to pay school fees, based on taxable income rather than census data, it will result in improvements to how private schools are funded.

The changes have absolutely no bearing on the way public schools are funded, yet from the tenor of debate, anyone would think a direct axe is been taken to the public system.

The most common battle cry is that the change attacks the "sector blind" principles of the Gonski model.

Even Rob Stokes, the Liberal NSW Minister for Education, says the change contradicts “the Gonski principles of needs-based, sector-blind funding”.

The argument that the Gonski model is sector blind and that this ideal is being corrupted is fundamentally wrong.

Not only has sector blind funding never existed as part of the Gonski model, but if it did, advocates for public education would have much more to worry about than they currently do.

Why sector-blind funding is a myth

The myth of the Gonski model as sector-blind emerged almost simultaneously with the commissioning of the original Gonski review in 2010.

Early in the review process, talk of sector-blindness filled the airwaves, suggesting the Gonski review would herald a new model that treated all schools (public and private) the same.

This was a mischaracterisation of the review's aims that somehow stuck in the public imagination.

Not once does the term “sector blind” feature in the Gonski report, nor does it appear in the more recent Gonski 2.0 report, despite ongoing claims to the contrary.

From the very beginning, the Gonski model actively sought to treat public and private schools differently, on the basis that doing so would be more equitable.

The model provides public schools with a full “base rate” amount of funding per student, whereas private schools receive a proportion of the base rate, based on the capacity of parents at those schools to make contributions (eg through school fees).

The current change makes no difference to this basic model, but instead provides a more accurate way of determining parents' capacities to pay, based on de-identified taxation data.

These changes are designed to make funding more needs-based, not less, but are certainly not designed to make federal funding sector blind, as that has nothing to do with it.

The Government will phase-in the change over a decade, resulting in an extra $3.4bn going to private schools over that period, and this has been ceased upon by those opposed to the reform.

The $1.2bn “choice and affordability fund” has also come under criticism, but this is fair enough given it seems to be more about political motives than improving the Gonski model.

Looking beyond the smoke and mirrors

School funding is the gift that keeps giving for the perpetually outraged.

Smoke and mirrors dominate, with half-truths actively peddled on both sides of the political divide.

At best, ongoing use of the term sector blind reflects either empty rhetoric or a misunderstanding of how school funding works. At worst, it is a deliberate mischaracterisation of the Gonski model for political point scoring.

While merchants of spin will never be tempted towards anything resembling a reasonable centre, the rest of us can at least seek to hold accountable those who make claims with brittle foundations.

For this reason, we should seriously question those who sell the sector-blind funding myth as a panacea to all that ails public education.

So, next time someone tells you we need sector-blind funding, ask them "do we really?"

Dr Glenn C. Savage is a senior lecturer in Education Policy at the University of Western Australia

This article has been edited for length and was originally published in ABC News.