Alongside DisabilityCare, the Gonski school funding reforms are seen by Prime Minister Gillard as her best, and only, chance of beating Abbott at the ballot box come September’s federal election. Gillard has claimed schools will lose $16.2 billion in funding if the Coalition wins the election. This is a clear attempt to differentiate herself from Abbott on an issue of great importance to voters, and to pressure the remaining states to sign up to the reforms.
What is ‘Gonski’?
The so-called Gonski Review (named after David Gonski, the review panel chairperson and former head of the Australian stock exchange) was commissioned to recommend reforms to Australia’s school funding model. It found, to no surprise, that Australia has a deeply flawed school-funding model. Australia sits among the lowest ranking countries in the OECD when is comes to public education funding.
Over the last decade public funds have increasingly been directed towards non-government (private) schools. This is despite that fact that only 29% of students are enrolled in private schools. The vast majority (71%) are educated in public schools.
The Gonski Review acknowledged that as successive governments increased funding to elite private schools at the expense of public schools, the overall performance and ‘equity’ in Australia’s education system has suffered. There is a significant and growing gap between ‘high’ performing and ‘low’ performing students. This gap is much greater than in most OECD counties.
The Gonski Review concluded that there should be a minimum amount of public money spent on every student, with further allowances for disadvantaged students (those with a disability or from Indigenous backgrounds, etc.). It made this recommendation alongside evidence that prioritising public funding for elite private schools has been a factor in the poor performance of public schools.
A neo-liberal funding model
The Gillard government has turned Gonski’s recommendations into an ideologically driven neo-liberal funding model for school education. Rather than redirect public money to public schools, Gillard’s reforms cement public funding for elite private schools.
A base funding amount for each student, regardless of whether they attend a public or private school, is a giant leap in the direction of a voucher system – just like DisabilityCare. We have already seen the devastating effect such a system has had on the TAFE sector, where in a number of states the public TAFE system has been decimated and dodgy private education providers rort both students and public finances.
Shamefully, the overwhelming majority of commentators, including the education unions, have welcomed these neo-liberal counter-reforms to public education. This has helped the government pass off this legislation as progressive when it is nothing of the sort.
The solution to underperforming public schools is not to install a funding model that entrenches public funding for private schools! The only valid solution is to direct public funds to improving the public school system so it can provide quality education to all.
Yet Gillard has threatened: “There is only one way of making sure that schools continue to improve with new resources and that’s to back in our plans”. Rather than concede to Gillard’s blackmail, students, education staff and parents need to build a mass campaign to fight for proper funding for all levels of public education – from pre-school to tertiary.
If we allow the further entrenchment of private education we will continue to see funds sucked out of public education. This is currently happening on an unprecedented scale in the tertiary sector. Once the Gonski model is entrenched, we will see the bleeding of funds from the public primary and secondary sectors also.
This is why the Socialist Party rejects the Gonski reforms, and instead demands increased public investment into public schools, not private schools. We also reject the idea that different levels of public education need to compete against each other for funding. If the biggest profiteers in the country – the mining bosses, the big banks and the casinos – had their super-profits taxed at a higher rate there would be more than enough public money available to fund free, quality public education for all.
The refusal to adequately fund public education is a marker of a sick society in which the desire for profit is placed before the needs of people. This is why we need to fight for a democratic socialist society where quality public education for all is given the highest priority.
By Mel Gregson