8 January 2011

Despite all attempts by politicians of both major parties to claim that the issue of State Aid to private schools is no more, it keeps jumping back into focus. While the Murdoch Press has been concentrating on revealing the rorting of the public purse by building contractors in the BER Revolution, a series of articles in the Fairfax Press has revealed the endemic rorting of the public purse by private schools in the current SES funding system. Finally, nearly half a century after governments first threw public funds at sectarian institutions, and a decade after it became obvious that State Aid has favoured the few at the expense of the majority of children, a journalist has asked the million dollar State Aid question:

Why should the public fund private schools at all?

This is the heading of an article by Chris Middendorp in The Age of Friday January 7, 2011. In part, he had this to say:

I attended a private school for a decade of my childhood…. My experiences made me an enthusiastic supporter of the state school system.

Supporters of private school education argue that it inculcates students with values. But even cursory research into the antics of some private school students will uncover incidents involving drugs, shoplifting, bullying and violence that make the values argument look shaky. Teenagers will make mistakes and mischief no matter where they go to school.

But since we're talking values, how can our top private schools justify yearly fees of between $16,000 and $27,000 for year 12 tuition? And how do they rationalise raising those fees by 5 to 10 per cent every year?

Private school education in Australia poses questions that go directly to the matter of values. The most important of these has been debated for years: should elite private schools receive taxpayer funding?

Many state school administrations struggle to find the money to undertake simple repairs to their portable classrooms.

The contrast between the two school types is often dramatic. In New South Wales, the Federation of Parents and Citizens found that some state schools are so under-resourced that parents have had to buy school library books and in some cases even the toilet paper. By contrast, private schools have access to enormous resources. Should the government's job be to perpetuate this disparity?

In 2001, the Howard government set up the school funding model that is still in place. When it was introduced, the socio-economic status (SES) funding formula provided an immediate bonus of $50 million to 67 of the country's wealthiest schools.

SES funding was meant to make elite schools more affordable for ordinary families. But it didn't prevent schools increasing their fees. Just how is a school that charges $27,000 for year 12 tuition ever going to be accessible to ordinary families?

A University of Sydney research paper by Dr Jim McMorrow reveals that by 2012-13, private schools will have received $47 billion in funding, compared with $35 billion for public schools.

It is hard to justify government funding of private schools, particularly when two-thirds of Australians are educated at state schools. The schools that receive government funding should be those that educate the majority of our population.

We were among the first countries to initiate free and compulsory education, but we appear to have lost our way. Former High Court judge Michael Kirby is a proud advocate of state schools. In a 2009 speech, "In Praise of Public Education", Kirby summed up the problem with characteristic precision: "It constantly amazes me that leaders of government in Australia, who themselves have benefited from public education, go along with inequity in the distribution of public funds for schooling."

Free education of an excellent standard should be a reasonable expectation in our democracy. A civilised society is only possible if you have a well-educated public, and woe betide any culture in which excellence in education can only be had if you pay.

It is no secret that most of our nation's disadvantaged students attend state schools. Their disadvantage is intensified when public money goes to private schools. The best pathway out of poverty is education. Intergenerational poverty can only be combatted if we channel all resources into public education.

Private school websites boast that the secondary education they can provide will lead their students to prosperity. The argument isn't without merit: the advantages our children gain in later life often come from those they receive early on. Consequently, state school funding must be the government's priority. Excellence in education should be available to all, not just the prerogative of the rich.

We expect our government to allocate serious taxpayer dollars to fund vital services such as police or ambulances. But how would we feel if wealthy families could access Commonwealth money to help fund their private security service or their home ambulance service? Isn't the Commonwealth's funding of private schools the same thing?

Last year, the federal government appointed a panel to review school funding. Led by businessman David Gonski, the panel will be taking submissions until March. A preliminary issues paper is due in the latter half of this year.

It's a safe bet that the discussion generated by this paper will be lively and acrimonious.

Chris Middendorp is a community worker and writer.

DOGS have two comments to make:

1.     Chris Middendorp is to be congratulated for raising the State Aid issue. He is lucky to have his article published. DOGS have been interviewed by many reporters whose comments did not make it to Press.  In the past fifty years the Age has not been known for publishing articles that criticize private schools. After all, they are a valuable source of advertising income for that paper.


2.     Chris Middendorp’s major criticisms are for private wealthy institutions. He does not question the major provider of sectarian schooling, namely the Catholic Church or its centralized education systems.


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