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  • School Funding Remains a Problem 

    In last month’s Catholic Life, I wrote an initial response to the Australian government’s review into school funding (the Gonski Report). Since then, further analysis has been carried out and some of the implications have become clearer. Indeed, these implications are so important for Catholic schools throughout Australia, that I have decided to outline some of them in this month’s column.

    The Federal Government’s initial intention in launching the review some years ago is commendable. The funding structure of the huge enterprise that is education throughout the country is complex and convoluted. It is difficult to understand and lends itself to the production of half truths that serve only to cloud discussion.

    The Gonski review has produced a theoretical model for funding with some positive elements. There has been, for example, an effort to end the “us versus them” debate in school funding, thus putting an end to the half truths that are pedalled by the Australian Education Union and others about levels of funding.

    Further, the question of uneven support offered to students with disabilities has been addressed, too. The report has made strong recommendations that students with disabilities be equally funded, regardless of the school attended. (At present, students with disabilities receive up to three times as much funding in a government school as they do in one of ours.)

    It must be pointed out, too, that supporters of public education and of the more affluent independent schools, seem quite accepting of the report. However, it presents major problems for low fee schools such as our Catholic schools.

    The issue is, fundamentally, that the report has recommended the establishment of a Capital National Capital Resource Standard which they argue is necessary to spend on every student in every school in order for schools to be “effective”. Unfortunately, the report does not suggest what this resource standard will be. It does propose a method for calculating it, but that method is very questionable in itself and no figures are available to see what it might be.

    The report recommends that public schools be funded to the full extent of this standard, and that non-government schools should meet the standard through a mix of State and Federal government funding and parent fees. It suggests that parent fees should be set at the level of the community’s capacity to pay. Of course, it is very difficult to determine that level but the report suggests a formula that is filled with problems.

     It would mean that schools serving the poorest of our communities would still be required to meet that National Resource Standard but in order to do that it is likely that they will have to at least double their fees. In fact, virtually all of our low fee Catholic schools will be required to double their fees or more. It would also be very difficult to maintain the concept of a family fee.

    Clearly, this will impact very badly on families. It will impact in a most serious way on the mission of the Catholic school to provide a preferential option for the poor. Indeed, it will impact very seriously on the ability of the Catholic school to fulfil its basic mission.

    Equally clearly, we cannot allow this to happen.

    The government has promised to legislate a new funding mechanism before the end of 2012, to come into effect in 2014. It should be noted that we are only guaranteed funding up until the end of 2013, so it will be necessary for some new mechanism to be developed before then. We sincerely hope it is not the one proposed by Gonski.

    Fortunately, it is difficult to see how the Gonski recommendations can be implemented. The report suggests that a massive injection of funds will be necessary for its objectives to be fulfilled. It further suggests that, in some undefined way, this injection of funds will be shared between State and Federal governments. Now, it seems highly unlikely that Canberra will be in a position to meet the financial demands of the report and most of the states, (including Victoria) have indicated that they cannot afford to meet those demands, even if they wanted to (which most of them don’t.)

    There does remain the possibility that the Federal government may bite the bullet and fund these changes without State support. For a number of reasons, this would be most unfortunate. It would impact very negatively on our schools and would certainly represent a rush through of a very complex set of arrangements that need to be calculated and put into place beforehand.

    It is sincerely to be hoped that government will see common sense in this. It is to be hoped that they will recognise the value of Catholic schools and the pressure already on parents to meet fee demands. It may be necessary in the not too distant future to involve all of us in some very active political work to ensure that our schools are able to meet their mission and that parents are not unduly pressured by extraordinary fee increases.

    At the moment, though, it is a case of “watch this space” – but we need to watch it very carefully.