Opinion: School funding is a journey, not a destination

Opinion: School funding is a journey, not a destination

I recently tweeted that Australia needs to get school funding right - and then get it off the front pages. It’s the right sentiment but of course it is a little more complex than that.

Whether you care about students or about consistent policy, federal Labor’s announcement on Wednesday of an extra $14.1bn for government schools should be welcomed, albeit with some details still to be resolved. The biggest open issue is how to ensure that the money will improve outcomes.

So let’s put it in context.

Reading the papers, it’s easy to get despondent. The school funding wars seem never-ending. But in fact, school funding is in a better place than it was two years ago and a much better place than 10 years ago.

The original Gonski report in 2011 laid the groundwork for a consistent needs-based funding model. Labor implemented much of it but also built in some deep flaws.

The Coalition improved on Labor’s model in 2017, most notably by reversing the idea that no school could ever lose a dollar.

Former Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, also made federal funding consistent across states, via the Commonwealth’s “80:20” model.

Under this model, the Commonwealth should provide funding to non-government schools to 80% of their funding targets, with the rest met by state governments. And for government schools, the Commonwealth should contribute 20% and the states 80%.

Consistency in federal policy is a good thing. But in practice, unless the states come to the party, the new 80:20 rule will mean most government schools are likely to be short-changed.

The recent Chaney review showed how pre-tax income could be used to gauge how much parents can afford to pay if they send their children to non-government schools. The new Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, rightly adopted Chaney’s recommendations, but then undercut himself with a $1.2bn slush fund based on ill-defined notions of choice and affordability.

Two steps forward, one step back. Over and over. But it’s better than never moving.

Labor’s new policy is another step forward. Rather than going back to Labor’s 2011 funding model, with all its flaws, opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek is taking advantage of the Coalition’s hard decisions in 2017 and building on them.

Plibersek’s extra $14bn of funding would move all schools closer to being fully funded – reaching 100% of their Schooling Resource Standard over the next decade, a formula that incorporates student need and parental capacity to contribute.

Under Labor, Commonwealth funding for public schools would rise to 22.2% of the school funding target for each state and territory. This focus on government schools is appropriate: they educate by far the largest proportion of disadvantaged students and they are typically further below their funding targets than non-government schools.

Importantly, Labor has adopted the Coalition principle of consistency in Commonwealth contributions across states. The one exception to this consistency under the new ALP announcement is to increase funding faster for schools in the Northern Territory, which has much higher levels of disadvantage than any other jurisdiction. Even here, this is hopefully just a temporary discrepancy.

Labor’s announcement does leave unanswered questions about funding for non-government schools. Labor should formally commit to the Chaney recommendations and it should reject the Coalition’s $1.2bn slush fund, which makes some schools more equal than others.

The biggest risk, as always, is that the extra money will not have its intended impact. Labor’s announcement signals that states will be required to sign up to new targets for school completion and improved outcomes. This sounds attractive but painful experience shows that targets can backfire, driving bureaucratic “tick-the-box” exercises that detract from real change.

The other big risk is about language. Labor’s announcement is couched very much in terms of extra teachers – no doubt something that warms hearts in the education union. But the Vegemite approach – spread the money thin – has not succeeded in the past and will not succeed this time. Teaching practice needs to improve, school by school, and subject by subject. This requires new ways of working, not just more teachers doing the same things.

School funding is a journey, not a destination. The goal is not actually to get it right but to keep improving it. It will get off the front pages when it is good enough. Labor’s announcement is another step in that direction.

Peter Goss is school education program director at the Grattan Institute.