More privilege for the privileged Email Print Normal font Large font Ross Gittins May 23, 2007 Other related coverage School funding comes under fire Advertisement AdvertisementIt's amazing what the onset of an election does to lift the performance of a government, particularly if its opponents are looking in any degree competitive. Consider our discovery - just since the budget - that John Howard is our Great Education Prime Minister. That's funny because, until he set us straight, I'd have said the one thing Howard wasn't on about was education. Not at any level - school, vocational education and training, or university. In fairness, the state governments haven't been much better. But I certainly hadn't noticed the feds setting them a good example. Education is one area where Australia's spent the past decade resting on its laurels. In the case of schools, Howard's greatest achievement has been to bias federal grants heavily in favour of private schools - particularly the least needy. Consider this comparison from Making Federalism Work for Schools, a report prepared by Lyndsay Connors for the NSW Public Education Alliance. In 1974, when the Whitlam government brought the Commonwealth into school funding in a significant way, about 70 per cent of its grants went to government schools and 27 per cent to private schools (with the remainder going on joint programs). This was roughly in line with the two sectors' shares of enrolments. Today, the budget shows public schools getting 31 per cent of the money while the private schools get 69 per cent. But public schools still have two-thirds of the enrolments. Mainly because of Commonwealth grants, funding for non-government schools is growing at three times the rate of spending on public schools, which is far in excess of the growth in the private sector's share of enrolments. Only about 13 per cent of students attend independent non-government schools (as opposed to Catholic systemic schools), which is less than a fifth the number of students at public schools. But the Commonwealth now spends more on that 13 per cent than it does on students at public schools. Get this: the minimum grant per student paid to private schools ranked as the least needy is now far higher than the grant per student paid to public schools. This is the "education revolution" no one wants to talk about. The feds are quietly moving to a position where they look after the private schools and leave the public schools to the states. In 2004-05, governments at both levels spent about $31 billion on the recurrent operations of all schools. Of this, the states spent more than three times what the feds spent: $24 billion versus $7 billion. But whereas the state and territory governments devoted only 7 per cent of their spending to private schools, the feds devoted more than 69 per cent of their spending to private schools. To put it another way, government schools get 9 per cent of their recurrent funds from the Commonwealth, whereas non-government schools get 73 per cent of their recurrent spending grants from the Commonwealth. The trouble with this is that it's the feds who've got all the money. The Commonwealth raises 80 per cent of the taxation, but does only 54 per cent of government spending. The states raise 16 per cent of the taxation, but do about 40 per cent of the spending. Australia is the only country where the provision of public funding for private schools is the dominant function of the national government - and constitutes the largest item in its education budget. The independent schools are now the fastest growing sector. And, relative to need, they do best. One study found that 27 per cent of the students in independent schools attended schools where just the money from school fees paid by parents exceeded the average resources per student in public schools. In 2004 these schools received $368 million a year in government grants, which helped to raise their total resources per student to more than 62 per cent above the average resources per student in public schools. In other words, the Howard Government has changed its private school funding formula in such a way as to increase the privilege of the privileged private schools. Overall, 55 per cent of students at independent schools attend schools where the total resources per student are higher than they are for public schools. But that means 45 per cent of students at independent schools attend schools where total resources per student are lower than they are for public schools. These are safe to include the more recently established Anglican and evangelical Christian independent schools in outer suburbs, where parents can't afford to pay all that much in the way of school fees. So Howard has changed the Commonwealth's grants to private schools in a way that's discriminatory even among the independent schools. But don't say he doesn't follow biblical principles - to whoever hath, it shall be given. How did he manage to put such a regressive bias into grants to independent schools? Paradoxically, by switching to a funding formula based on the average socioeconomic status of people in the suburb or town each of an independent school's parents came from - but adding a rule that no school's grant would be reduced under the new arrangement. In other words, the new formula could make an independent school better off but not worse off. This threw up many anomalies, with huge increases in grants going to some privileged schools (including one my son had gone to) patronised by parents who tended to be among the best-off people in not-well-off suburbs or towns. Another odd feature of all this is that Howard has not imposed anything much in the way of conditions on the big grants he's paying to private schools. What they do choose to do - such as continuing to impose hefty annual fee increases on their parents - is up to them. By contrast, he and his minister are always coming up with new conditions they want to impose on public schools, and always threatening to withhold grants if the states fail to comply. You get the feeling his bias is as much anti-public as it is pro-private.