The Victorian budget

This week the Victorian government handed down its budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The centrepieces were $1.1 billion in education spending, major new public transport infrastructure and a sizable surplus.  Here are some of the things that stood out for me from the school and early years portfolios.

Highlights:

  • More and better-targeted school funding. This sees the continued implementation of the Victorian government's Education State agenda and a welcome response to the findings of the Bracks Review. Although Victoria has had a needs-based funding model for two decades only 7% of this funding was for equity measures. From July this year, about 30% of students in Victorian public (government) schools will receive equity funding. The higher base amount of general recurrent funding for schools is slightly above indexation and population growth.
  • $924.1 million to build or upgrade school facilities, heralded as the "largest ever single investment in school infrastructure in Victoria". Much of this is to build or expand schools in areas with surging populations - mostly on Melbourne's outskirts - and the rest is to update facilities in the most dilapidated schools across the state, many of whom have been in urgent need for a long time.   I was in two-minds about calling this a major highlight. I consider it a core obligation of government to provide more schools and other essential services as the population increases, and to maintain essential pre-existing infrastructure and facilities. But given the chronic under-investment in this space, and lag between population growth and school building for many years in Victorian and other states, it is pleasing to see the Andrews government make this a major priority.
  • $50 million for a Shared Facilities Fund to build jointly-funded and jointly-managed community assets like sports facilities, performing arts centres and libraries. These are hoped to create "community hubs at major schools in growth corridors and elsewhere across the state" to "enable greater use of school facilities after school hours".
  • Much higher target numbers of principals and assistant principals participating in centrally-funded leadership development courses, to better equip them with the skills they need in their vital roles.  Public schools in Victoria have far greater autonomy than elsewhere in Australia.
  • Doctors in up to 100 of the most disadvantaged secondary schools across the state. This builds upon the highly successful initiative of Bendigo Senior Secondary, a public school regional Victoria.
  • Building more Children’s Hubs, which will be a “one-stop shop for families” offering a range of children and family services under the one roof to increase convenience and access.
  • Respectful relationship training for preschool teachers

The Victorian budget also had a few disappointments for me, including:

  • No funding commensurate with Victoria’s share of the “Gonski” funding.  This follows the federal Coalition government backing out of the six-year agreement forged between their predecessors (Labor prime minister Rudd and Coalition Premier Napthine) in August 2013, under which the Commonwealth would have contributed $6.8 billion and the Victorian government contributed $5.4 billion. However, the higher and better-targeted funding for public schools is still significant and worthy of praise.
  • No sizable increase in Victorian funding for 4 year old preschool (kindergarten), nor any public funding for 3 year old preschool programs (apart from a handful of pre-existing highly-targeted programs for children from vulnerable backgrounds). Research undertaken by my colleagues and I at the Mitchell Institute confirms that investment in high-quality early education programs, such as preschool, in the years before school are one of the highest-impact investments governments can make, benefit to all children, and with especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are also least likely to participate currently. We also know that cost and attitudes to the importance of preschool are major barriers to participation. I would have liked to have seen subsidies increase for 4 year old preschool making it free for all families, and subsidies introduced for 3 year old programs. This would have elevated the status of preschool as a vital part of the education system, while simultaneously making it more affordable and accessible. At present, there is a large gap between program costs and government subsidies, which is met by fees and fundraising.

Overall I give the Victorian budget’s education spending a B+  “Great work, more than adequate, but with potential for significant improvement.”