How much money should our schools receive? How much should private schools get? What about public schools? A Federal Government review into the current system – and how it could be done better – will be made public on Monday. It’s called the Gonski Review after its independent head businessman David Gonski, AC.
Passionate public education advocate and President of the Australian Council of Educators Lyndsay Connors, tells the following story.
“A few weeks ago I was at an education dinner function here in Sydney when a man sitting next but one on my left announced that ‘this Gonski Review is a real worry’. Naturally, I was intrigued and I bent forward to catch his drift.
When asked by the chap next to him what he meant, he said that he would not like to ‘verbal’ the Gonski panel and would, therefore, quote their actual words.
He reached down into his briefcase and then brandished what I later was able to identify as the Emerging Issues Paper released by the Gonski Review late last year.
“Listen to this” he said. “This is what it says. It says that ‘equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.
“Yes”, I said. “Is there a problem with that?”
“It’s Marxism”, he said.”
I find this anecdote particularly revealing because I have found myself being called a leftie (I can’t be all that left wing having spent 30 years in advertising, the coal face of capitalism) mostly because I am vocal in my support for and belief in the importance of public education. Quite frankly, the idea that publicly provided high quality educational opportunities for all has become a sign of communist or socialist tendencies terrifies me.
Surely, all reasonable Australians would agree that a child’s educational opportunities should not be limited by their parent’s ability to pay? After all, no child is disadvantaged through any of their own doing. They have simply been unlucky in the lottery of birth and been born into a family that is less able to navigate their way through society successfully than another child’s family. My passion for public education is based on precisely the fact that a civilized and compassionate society takes that into account and does all that it can to close the generational divisions between our children.
For the last few decades, however, Australia has been doing precisely the opposite. If you doubt me, here are a few facts about the way we differentially fund our children’s education:
- Public schools teach two thirds of our kids but receive one third of Federal Govt education funding.
- Australia spends a smaller proportion of education funding on public education than almost every developed nation in the world. Only Chile and Belgium spend less.
- Public schools teach all the children with higher needs. 77% of low income, 86% of indigenous, 80% of disabled students, 72% of rural, 79% of kids from single parent families and 84% of kids from remote areas. Needless to say, these children are also the more expensive to educate.
- Taxpayer funding for public schools has been increasing at just over half the rate of taxpayer funding for private schools, despite the fact that they educate the kids that need the most public support.
- In 1996 there were 13 low income kids to every 10 high income kids in our public school playgrounds, by 2006 it was 16 low income to every 10 high income. No doubt it is now even worse.
In other words, if we continue on as we are we are well on the way to becoming the first democracy to turn our public education system into a welfare system of last resort for the children of the poor. Far from it being Marxist to believe that a child’s chances in life should not be dictated by the accident of their birth, I sometimes wonder if we can continue to be a democracy if we use public funds to entrench privilege and underprivilege through our education system? And even if you don’t care much about the injustice of birth dictating educational opportunity, the consequences for Australia as a nation in the long term if we differentially educate all our talent will eventually affect us all.
Some are calling the Gonski Review a once in a generation opportunity to change our radical, wasteful and deeply unfair educational funding so that we can redirect the most money to the kids and schools that need it most.
As Chris Bonnor and I wrote in our book The Stupid Country; “When you give overly generous subsidies to schools that are already luxuriously resourced, are teaching children who come from higher socio-economic households, and who may already be achieving above the national average, it is hard to see a discernible return for that money. Results don’t improve, fees don’t go down, the socio-economic status of students does not broaden.
When you give much-needed money to schools that are under-resourced and struggling to deal with high concentrations of hard-to-teach students, you see an immediate return on your investment. Results improve, hope is created where once there was only despair, and the future benefits for the long-term health of the society as a whole are incalculable.”
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Jane Caro is a novelist, Just a Girl author of The Stupid Country and The F Word, writer, feminist, atheist, Gruen Chick, speaker, media tart, wife, mother and stirrer. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Do you think public schools get a fair deal? How would you like to see school funding changed?