MAY 24, 2011



On 24 May 2011 a debate was held at the Melbourne Town Hall on the proposition that ‘Public Funding of Private Schools was Unconscionable.’ Those speaking on behalf of this proposition defeated those for the defence on both the argument and the vote.

Amanda Vanstone, who was the only speaker for the defence who actually addressed the proposition had an article related to her argument published in The Age on May 23.

She said that:

I believe in choice. If you want a school that provides a particular religious instruction with the basic curriculum, why shouldn't you be able to have it? Should every child who goes to a small local Christian, Jewish or Muslim school have no government backing?....

Diversity and freedom of choice are cornerstones of our society. They should be there in education. And not just for the super-rich.
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Diversity and freedom of choice are the cornerstones of a selfish and self-serving aspirational middle class. But they are not the cornerstone of a democracy, Amanda. An educated, enlightened citizenry, and a public education system available to all children, represents that cornerstone.

 The ‘choice’ argument  was the best that the defence could do. They avoided the fact that in both the inner and outlying suburbs of Melbourne like Coburg and Mernda there is no choice of a neighbourhood public school. Kevin Donnelly, Amanda’s fellow speaker  fell back on thumping a triumphalist drum – he pointed out that the private sector got rid of Latham and would get rid of anyone else who threatened them, and descended to incivility toward Shane Maloney who spoke for the affirmative side of the debate. 

The arguments and sub-standard figures of the private school supporters failed to persuade the audience. The debate has moved on. It has moved on to the unconscionability of sectarian school discrimination against children and parents on the basis of class, creed, geographic location and you name it – they can do it.

All speakers for public education were exceptional, but it was Shane Maloney who was published in the Age. He bit the bullet and took on the main protagonist and beneficiary of State Aid to sectarian schools – the Catholic Church. The following exceprts are from his article:

Catholic school mission no longer applies, so why the state aid?

Shane Maloney

May 23, 2011

The church needs to explain why it's still in the education business.

The democratic idea of free, universal and secular public education has been under sustained attack in this country for several decades. Elected officials responsible for the state school system are keener to wash their hands of it, or actively undermine its viability, than to stick up for it. Its teachers are routinely portrayed as incompetent and feather-bedded, protected by unions whose sole objective is to defend the privileges of their dead-wood membership.

Meanwhile, under the rubric of choice, bucketloads of taxpayer money have been poured into exclusionary and segregated schools with scant scrutiny of how it is used. Government funds, ostensibly provided to make private schools more affordable, have not been passed on to parents as lower fees. Some ''elite'' schools, open only to a minuscule minority, generate huge financial surpluses while loudly proclaiming their need for subsidies.

This has landed the task of defending public education on the shoulders of the parents of the 65 per cent of our kids who are enrolled in our public schools. And since those parents lack the well-resourced national organisations of the commercial and religious sectors, their views often don't get heard beyond their immediate peers.

This is a fraught and dangerous business. ….

The Catholic Church could start the ball rolling by providing reasons for its ongoing expansion into the education business. As someone raised and educated in the Catholic faith, I'd really like to know. It's an intriguing question. A mystery, but hardly a sacred one….

The Catholic Church is now one of the largest commercial enterprises in Australia. In 2005, BRW estimated its annual revenues at more than $1.5 billion, tax exempt. Yet for all its wealth, the church has not been able to retain its members. Nuns and brothers are few and far between, religious observance among Catholics has fallen through the floor and priests are so scarce that a diocese in Tasmania imported some from Nigeria. More than 40 per cent of Catholics students go to state schools. Enrolments from low-income Catholic families have declined to the point where Cardinal George Pell admits the church is no longer educating its poorest members. Catholic school graduates are deserting religion in droves.

So, how come Catholic schools account for 20 per cent of all primary and secondary school enrolments? By catering, according to the cardinal, to the huge Australian middle class it helped to create. Catholicism has become a brand, pitched to parents who associate it with discipline and non-secular values. Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Buddhist - if you can meet the fees, you're in. In some Catholic schools, non-Catholic enrolment has reached 70 per cent.

So if, despite its wealth, the Catholic Church isn't fulfilling its own aims, if it can't retain its existing followers, if it doesn't cater to the poorest of its flock, why should the public be expected to fund its schools?

This month, the bishops are conducting a survey of attendance at Sunday mass to get an accurate picture of the number of observant Catholics. It might also be an opportunity for them to consider just how far the church has strayed from its original justification for state aid. Some may even be prompted to examine their consciences as closely as they scrutinise their balance sheets.

If I thought it would do any good, I'd pray for them to do so

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The comments online were a mixed bag. Predictably, Shane Maloney was accused of ‘Catholic bashing’ but not, surprisingly, of being ‘sectarian’. He had many, many supporters and a number sitting on the fence, wondering just where the educational future lies in Australia.

One thing is for sure. Australia’s educational and democratic future never has, and never will lie with the sectarian denominational system. That is an eighteenth century system for an aristocracy. Our nineteenth century forefathers discovered that you cannot educate a modern nation unless you have a publicly funded system that is open to all, one that is publicly owned, controlled and accountable. The Scandinavian countries, Germany, China, The USA, and Singapore know this.

The current arrangement in Australia is uneconomic, and grossly unfair to the vast majority of children, parents and taxpayers. It is unconscionable.’



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