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    Common Sense or Politics Approach to School Funds?

     In a recent article in Catholic Life, I suggested that Catholic education was approaching yet another “Crossroads” in their long history of negotiating an ongoing series of “Crossroads”.

    The one approaching again concerns school funding and it promises to be a critical one.

    Our current Australian Federal Labour Government promised a comprehensive review of the complex area of school funding. They are exploring that through a panel headed by Mr David Gonski (hence the name “the Gonski Review”). Mr Gonski is a prominent businessman who is, among other things, chair of the Australian Stock Exchange.

    His panel is charged with examining the way funding is distributed to all schools in Australia, Government, Independent and Catholic and will take into account levels of State funding as well.

    The panel is facing a daunting task. It’s first task is to unravel the complex and confusing system that exists now; then to come up with a viable and acceptable alternative. And all of this must be done in the face of enormous pressure from powerful lobby groups (one of which is Catholic Education) right around the country.

    Having done that, they are required to deliver to the government a new model that can be implemented across all systems in all States in an extremely delicate political environment. That environment is so delicate, indeed, with the governments being there only by the wishes of the Greens and the Independents.

    We are, as they say, only one heart attack from a change of government!

    Catholic schools are under enormous pressure. It is easy to demonstrate that our schools perform at a high level, at less cost per head than either government or independent systems and are while providing an extremely high level of access across all social groups. The government’s own MySchool website demonstrates that very clearly.

    However, there are other powerful groups hostile to Catholic schools and to the Church generally, who take advantage of the confusing funding situation we presently have. They use it to pedal half truths and present them as full reality.

    Sadly for us, the media, who have never been particularly friendly to Church, seem to support that thrust. These groups and individuals seem to have easy access to newspapers, while our own voice is rarely heard, and that is not for want of trying. Consequently, public opinion seems very much influenced by these interests, with the majority of people now apparently believing that Catholic schools are over funded! However, that is simply not the case.

    We might ask, for example, if they are over funded then they are over funded compared to what?

    Our schools cost less to run than others, we receive less government funding per head (considering state and government funds together) than do government schools. So what is our funding being compared to when the statement is made that we are over funded?

    It is true that a significant number of our schools attract funding greater than they would with the criteria introduced by the Howard government 10 years ago were strictly applied. When that funding model was introduced, many schools stood to lose substantial funds. The Howard government moved to protect those schools and systems by introducing the concept of “funding maintained” schools. This simply meant that some schools attracted funds above what they would if the socio economic status (SES) model was strictly applied. However, those critics who say that they are receiving more than they are entitled under the system, are the same critics who believe that the system is wrong in the first place. There is a serious inconsistency in their argument. The other, perhaps more serious, issue but one that is always ignored, is that, while many schools attract more funding than they might if the system were applied strictly, the operative word is “attract.” These schools do not in fact “receive” that same level of funding. That funding is provided to central bodies such as the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria. Those bodies pool all the funds and re-distribute them to other schools according to need. That is the nature of education systems. The funding maintained system was instituted in fact, not to protect the funding of individual schools, but to provide sufficient funds to a system, to a central pool, so that less affluent schools such as those we have in our diocese, could continue to operate effectively.

    I agree that it is a complex and confusing system. I agree that it requires significant adjustment, even if only to take away the confusion and to remove false arguments from those hostile to us. But any new system must not result in our losing funds. Whatever system recommended by the Gonski report, Catholic education must be funded at our present levels at a minimum in real terms.

    Catholic schools make an enormous contribution to Australian society and at a lower cost to the public than any other system. For a government to punish us would seem ridiculous, but it is a political process now, and politics often seem very ridiculous indeed.