9 AUGUST 2010

The Gillard government has ‘sacrificed public schools’ for the sectarian vote– which she may never get anyway. Last week, without reference to cabinet, Gillard announced that, in order to provide certainty to the private religious sector in education, she would extend the present formula for school funding to 2013, the next election year. In his article ‘Public Schools Sacrificed for a Win at Any Cost’, The Age, Monday August 9, 2010 Kenneth Davidson claims that Gillard and Abbott are engaged in a race to the gutter in education policy. Meanwhile, the Greens, particularly in the seat of Melbourne look to pick up the disaffected public school vote.

Davidson provides a damning economic analysis of current education funding in Australia, a system based upon the long since discredited SES formula. He writes:

The system is a scam. If it were fair, it would apply across the three systems - state, Catholic and independent. If Commonwealth funding for government schools were based on the SES model, they would receive $28 billion a year more than now.The scam is disguised in the first place by dodgy statistics that artificially inflate expenditure on government schools by including imputed charges for the cost of capital and payroll tax; these are not included in the non-government estimates.

The latest National Report on Schooling shows that, for 2007-08, average total current expenditure for government schools was $12,639 per student, compared with $10,826 per student in Catholic schools, $15,576 in independent private schools and an average of $12,745 for all private schools. But the imputed user cost of capital is $1868 per student and payroll tax is $441, based on national figures published by the NSW Treasury.

Non-government schools receive substantial capital grants and land grants from government. And, when government school assets are sold off, the proceeds are returned to consolidated revenue, unlike non-government schools, for which the proceeds of asset sales are reinvested.

On an honest comparison, then, government school expenditure per student in 2008 was $496 less than Catholic schools, $5246 less than independent schools and $2415 less than all private schools.Based on a government school population of 2.3 million, bringing government school resources up to the average for all private schools would require an extra $5.5 billion a year.

But, for a given standard, government schools are more expensive to run. They must provide a school for all comers and in all places. They can't cherry-pick the market. This alone suggests that funding benchmarks should set a premium for government schools.The SES formula is a flawed measure of disadvantage because it is based on areas rather than families. But based on 2006 census data and the 2010 Productivity Commission report on government services, government schools - which take a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students - should receive 1.8 times the per capita funding of private schools, according to calculations by Trevor Cobbold, who maintains the Save Our Schools website. On this basis, Commonwealth funding for government schools should be increased $28.7 billion a year.

This scandalous funding inequity has arisen from a combination of the turpitude of the political leaders of all political parties, and the Catholic hierarchy, which has effectively abandoned the children of working-class Catholics.The latter now mainly attend government schools, since the massive increases in funding since 2001 have been used to improve student-teacher ratios rather than hold down fees.Meanwhile, Gillard's attempt to impose the New York accountability model to expose the underperforming schools her policies are helping to create has proved to be a mirage following an independent study by New York's Education Department.

Private school funding is utterly corrupted. But the religious and affluent forces behind it are now so powerful that all politicians, including the Greens, are terrified to confront gross overfunding for the privileged. At the least, Gillard could have demanded the production of honest statistics to show how corrupt the system really is.

Davidson is correct is saying that as a Needs policy the funding of sectarian private schools is a scam. What he is not yet prepared to say is that all and any ‘Needs” policies dreamt up by the Laborials in the last forty years has been a scam designed to pay off sectarian interests and wealthy schools at the expense of the public school sector. The introduction of public funding of sectarian schools in the last fifty years has been a disaster for public education, our egalitarian democracy and the separation of church and state in Australia.  

The ‘Needs’ policy scams commenced with the Labor Party’s Schools Commission in 1973. In that year Beazley Senior made sure that only compliant representatives of public school interests were given a lift into political, academic and administrative careers. When Van Davy, the Teachers representative was no longer compliant and wrote a dissenting report in 1984, the Schools Commission was abandoned. But it should be remembered that from the very beginning the unholy Protestant /Catholic alliance made mince meat of any real attempt to distribute the crumbs from the wealthy sectarian schools to the poor of the faith. Since the nineteenth century they have always regarded public schools as the ‘godless’ waste basket system and looked after their own sectarian interests.

 DOGS quote from the unofficial history of the DOGS High Court case, Contempt of Court, the account of our interaction with the 1973 Interim Schools Commission chaired by Professor Peter Karmel. This is the account of Ernie Tucker, President of DOGS New South Wales:

As a group we made both written and oral submissions to the Karmel Committee. We got the extensive written submissions together in a week, and trawled through Peter Karmel’s own South Australian Report for relevant ideas. I remember the Tasmanian evidence on the uneconomic duplication of schools in the public sector by the Church schools. We also addressed the accountability issue.


There was Ray Nilsen from Victoria, Marion Sturges and George Wilson from Tasmania. You were there too Margaret? We all flew to Canberra on March 21, 1973 to put our case. [1]  We were treated very courteously and provided with a room to discuss our oral submission together.


Karmel was an academic-economist remaking his career as an education mandarin. He twinkled at us over his glasses, putting us at ease with a smile on his balloon-cheeked face. Jean Blackburn was his assistant and note taker. She was a well-known educationist and asked interesting questions. But the final Interim Report avoided historical issues and forced contradictions into tandem.


Some members of the Committee were interested in our duplication and accountability arguments. But Karmel and Blackburn were taken aback by my suggestion that Church schools should be accountable for public money on exactly the same terms as public schools. One Committee member pointed out that this would mean that churches would have to reveal sources of revenue other than government grants. So…? The information was shrouded in complex skeins of charitable trusts, or corporations set aside for the eyes of the hierarchy and initiates alone. That issue received a hasty burial. In 1973 Karmel passed the buck. He said that his Committee was not the inquisition and full accountability was a matter for the government and the Auditor-General.


Karmel and Blackburn wanted to get emotional mileage on the equality of opportunity issue. But they were not prepared to make schools equal with the abolition of fees and entrance tests. Karmel ducked for cover.


That said, it should be remembered that Karmel did categorise the schools and recommended that those in the wealthiest category should not get Commonwealth money. He pointed out that they already had their library and science grants.There were 140 schools in Category A that Karmel recommended should receive no more aid. Karmel further recommended that another 100 schools in categories B and C have their per capita grants reduced. Roman Catholic ‘systemic schools’ remained sacrosanct, and many Protestant schools fell into the categories facing cuts.


It looked as if The Protestant /Catholic alliance might not survive the strain.


Category A schools started crying poor and demanding re-categorisation down the scale. Some wealthy Catholic schools jumped over into the systemic system. Then Kim Beazley Senior, the Minister for Education and, when he collapsed and was ill, Lionel Bowen,[2] led the Labor party cave in. They gave the lame excuse that ‘The Commonwealth needed to have an interest in every school and this was necessary before the Schools Commission legislation could pass through the Senate’. Beazley’s re-categorisation of Church schools was a joke. Any realistic categorisation has long since been buried.


 I believe the rejection of the original Karmel ‘Needs’ categorisation by Beazley and the Labor Party was a tragedy for the history of the Commonwealth funding of education in this country.[3]


Federal aid flowed to all schools in the private sector, in greater proportion than that to public schools. The public school share of federal funding was downgraded every year. Yet none of the people appointed to the Schools Commission to represent the public sector submitted a dissenting report until 1984.


Mark Latham, the leader of the Labor Party in the 2004 federal election, attempted to shave back even a little bit of the money from the wealthiest schools, but they demanded their ‘rights’. Latham lost the election, and since that time nobody has dared do anything about it. There isn’t even a Schools Commission to gather data. Public schools don’t even seem to be on the political radar any more.







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[1] DOGS Newsletter, May 1973.

[2] The Memoirs of Kim E.Beazley :Father of the House with Annotations by Kim C Beazley and John Bond, Fremantle Press, 2009, 197, 201, 202.

[3]  Beazley Snr. had even put forward the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church should be prepared to assume control of certain State schools, with Catholic school teachers from the State school service appointed to teach alongside members of the monastic orders in such institutions. Hansard 12 October 1971, 2214-2215. Beazley said: ‘As far as Catholic schools are concerned, their undoubted intention is the promulgation of the Catholic faith. It seems to me that realistically, if the increasing burden of education is to be carried by such private bodies they will have to come to accept what was once offered, I understand, by a former director of education in Western Australia. He said: “If you cannot carry the burden of teaching because you no longer have enough people in the orders to staff the schools, why not assume control of certain State schools, which we will allow you to do? We will appoint only Catholic teachers from the State schools service to those staffs additional to whatever from your orders you are prepared to put there.” I understand that this was rejected by the Church in that State but that the German Palatine order accepted it because it had parallels with their experience in Germany’.