States say Pyne’s changes to target public schools as bitter old debates become new

In just one week, education minister Christopher Pyne has managed to travel the whole debate on schools funding back in time to the old arguments about state versus private schools.

The Gonski review, and the subsequent Labor Better Schools plan, were serious attempts to move away from this stale debate and create a policy that was sector blind.States say Pyne’s changes to target public schools as bitter old debates become new

Now, tragically it seems, we are back running around in circles over the same tired ideas.

A long history

The history of government funding of public and private schools is a long and complicated one. These divisons go back to the nineteenth century and reach a heightened pitch in the 1960s with the fight over state aid.

Whitlam’s Labor government came to power in 1972 with some broad attempts to start new directions in education. Whitlam made much of the idea that education funding would be allocated on the basis of need, not ideology. The Karmel Report was drawn up and a Schools Commission established to give some kind of fairness to allocation of funds.

However, the devil was in the detail, and Catholic bishops successfully resisted the idea that any Catholic school would get less money. So the system was never perfect.

In the Howard years, a new model was drawn up. Funds were allocated more generously to private schools. As a result, many new schools sprang up, including low-cost Anglican schools, Islamic schools and specialist schools. According to The Age, from 1999 to 2002, the number of full-time students attending non-government schools jumped more than 20%, compared with a 1% increase in government school enrolments.

One of the aims of this exercise was to attract the votes of middle-class “aspirational” parents. Another aim was to decrease the power of the teacher unions. Then-prime minister John Howard also cleverly gained the support of the talkback radio hosts. He said parents were moving their children out of government schools because the state system is “too politically correct and too values-neutral”.

In the 2004 election campaign, opposition leader Mark Latham said Labor would reduce funding for schools which were already well-funded. It became a political debacle with savage attacks from talkback radio hosts who ranted about “hit lists” and “class warfare”.

The debate shook Labor strategists and commentators said it cost Latham the election.

Even though, as it turned out, Latham’s policy was approved by 66% of voters. And subsequent analysis by election expert Murray Goot found Labor lost the election, not because of its education policies, but because of interest rates and other economic arguments.

Still, the experience was difficult and the lesson was writ large for any future politicians attempting to reform how schools were funded. School reform was not for the faint of heart.

A dangerous debate

The Gonski review, initiated by the previous Labor government, tried to move the debate on from discussions about private versus public funding.

The review, led by businessman David Gonski, painstakingly sorted through the evidence. Finally, there was a genuine attempt to make funding more equitable. But again, no school would be worse off, as then-prime minister Julia Gillard promised. Labor was nervous about rousing the shock jocks, who were already in full cry against her as a woman and as a leader.

A start could have been made much earlier but instead Labor’s last minute efforts meant the government was still trying to sign agreements just before the election. And then it only managed to sign up a few of the states.

Christopher Pyne has now reversed his election position, and abandoned the Gonski program.

We have yet to see the evidence for his claims that the model is “unworkable” or a “shambles”. To my knowledge, no eminent educational experts have yet agreed.

But now, we seem to be back in the dark days of state versus private schools. Pyne needs to think carefully before he heads down this path, otherwise it could raise up bitter hatreds that will cut across Australian society. It will lead to envy of the wealthiest schools and their endowments.

It should be left behind as a historic relic, much like the old hostilities between Protestant and Catholic that once existed in Australia.

After all, does this bitterness help us educate kids who will have to compete among our hard-working Asian neighbours? When will we put kids’ needs first, and tired old arguments last?

The airwaves need to be noisy with education experts and others explaining why this old debate is no longer needed. It should be obvious that our most disadvantaged kids in the most disadvantaged schools need funding most urgently.

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