- The federal, state and territory governments spent a combined $59 billion on public and non-government schools in 2020.
- Whoever wins government on May 21 will face negotiations over the next four-year state-federal funding deals, which expire at the end of next year.
- Education experts say the next education minister must overhaul federal-state funding deals and redistribute money from the overfunded private sector to underfunded public schools.
Education experts say an incoming federal government must ensure the full funding of public schools within the next five years as they implore Labor to detail its timeline for closing the resources gap with private schools.
Dr Ken Boston, who worked alongside businessman David Gonski on the landmark 2010 review of school funding and the second “Gonski 2.0” review in 2017, said the next education minister must overhaul federal-state funding deals and redistribute money from the overfunded private sector to underfunded public schools.
Whoever wins government will face negotiations over the next four-year state-federal funding deals, called the National School Reform Agreements, which expire at the end of next year.Credit:Quentin Jones
“The new government will be confronted with an education system that is failing by international standards and continues to deteriorate,” Boston, a former director-general of the NSW Education Department, said.
“The Commonwealth needs to look at where it is putting its money and understand that it is putting far too much into the non-government sector. It’s about redistribution, not new funding. We’ve had 10 years of screaming for new funding.”
The federal, state and territory governments spent a combined $59 billion on public and non-government schools in 2020 – an amount Boston says is “enough money to have a first-class education system”.
Whoever wins government on May 21 will face negotiations over the next four-year state-federal funding deals, called the National School Reform Agreements, which expire at the end of next year.
The existing agreements were designed to codify an 80:20 funding split between the Commonwealth and states, with the federal government the majority funder of private schools, and the states the majority funder of public schools. But at best, the agreements will see public schools funded to 91 per cent of their Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) – the needs-based funding benchmark born out of the Gonski reforms – with states required to hit only a 75 per cent target by the end of the decade.
A further loophole allows states and territories to claim costs of up to 4 per cent of non-education measures such as building depreciation and bus services towards their total funding obligation – a measure that will direct billions away from public school classrooms over the decade.
At the same time, many private schools receive more than 100 per cent of their SRS and will remain overfunded until 2029.
“If a Labor government are going to do something about education, they’ve got to correct that and correct it promptly, not let it get to 2029,” Boston said.
The new government will be confronted with an education system that is failing by international standards and continues to deteriorate.
Labor went to the 2019 election promising $14 billion extra for public schools, raising the government’s contribution to the SRS to 22.2 per cent from 20 per cent.
It has since abandoned that commitment in favour of a pledge by education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek to renegotiate the funding arrangements if elected to ensure every school “is on a path to reach 100 per cent of the SRS”. At the same time, she has promised that Catholic and independent schools “will not have their funding touched” while “every underfunded public school will be better off under Labor”.
Plibersek has not laid out a timeline for achieving full funding for public schools or said whether a Labor government would tip in more money to achieve it, frustrating public education advocates.
The Coalition declined to respond directly to questions about its plan for renegotiating the funding agreements but said in a statement it was investing a record $25.3 billion in schools this year.
Trevor Cobbold, a former Productivity Commission economist and Save Our Schools convener, said the states and territories were “dramatically failing public schools” and the next four-year funding deal should lock in 100 per cent SRS funding by the end of 2027. But he disagreed that redistributing existing funding alone would close the gap, saying the incoming government must either chip in more money for public schools or find a way to get states to lift their contributions to 80 per cent and more quickly.
He said he was disappointed that Labor, which views itself as a stronger defender of public education than the Coalition, “had put education on the backburner” this election.
“Education has always been a key component of Labor policy. Plibersek should have a clear aim of when public schools are going to get to 100 per cent,” he said.
“They must immediately start renegotiating agreements to ensure that the states go to 80 per cent funding in a much shorter time period than the end of the decade. It is costing public schools billions of dollars. Meanwhile, private schools are going to be overfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars until 2029.”
Tom Greenwell, a Canberra-based teacher and author of a book on the Gonski reforms, said it was reasonable for voters to expect Labor to commit to a timeline that locked in full funding of public schools by the end of the next funding quadrennium.
“We know that the Coalition won’t lift the Commonwealth contributions to 25 per cent. That’s the question for the Labor opposition. That’s what they should be answering if they’re serious about all schools being funded at 100 per cent,” he said.
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