Quick backgrounder to today's meeting of education ministers

Today the education ministers from all of Australia’s governments – state, territory and Commonwealth- meet in Adelaide and the contentious and complex issue of school funding reform is on the agenda.  Here's a quick backgrounder before I take my little kids to the zoo.

While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states - continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901 - the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 50s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing general recurrent funding to all public (= government/state) schools and private schools (= nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent) using tied grants. This policy was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of mostly unilateral decisions made by Commonwealth governments with different agendas, it has had the opposite effect.  Since this time, and especially since a heavily politicized and compromised private school funding reform in the early 2000s, Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of their enrolment growth and relative need.  Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, the overwhelming majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools. And this stratification and resource inequality is increasing.

States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as a bit to private schools). But the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences that schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of these conditional Commonwealth grants ranges from ineffective to mediocre to damaging.  This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it doesn't run either of them. The Commonwealth grants also often divert attention from cohesive improvement plans schools or systems plans may have been pursuing, as they scramble to get extra (much needed) funding to make ends meet. And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (e.g. Victoria has had a version of independent public schools since the early 1990s) or bad (i.e. not educationally sound), or impractical due to the split of responsibilities under the Constitution.  Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the ACARA, which is responsible for the national literacy and numeracy tests and Australian Curriculum, among other things.

The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding – all sectors, all levels of government – since the early 70s and was charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. It found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing; that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes; and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got an equal opportunity to children from more advantaged backgrounds in more advantaged schools. 

The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that these allocations be transparent. This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. (I.e. to explore which formulas get better outcomes - a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more $ for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality). 

Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements between the Commonwealth and each differentstate and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. It was to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.  But a needs-based system where the state-level systems allocated money, due to their superior expertise and administrative capacity in schooling.

The implementation had two major flaws. One was the promise that “no school would lose a dollar” (even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). This meant the funding was distributed far too thinly, with some extra funding going to schools that were over-resourced, which meant far less was available for the schools with the greatest educational challenges. The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year. Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”.  This is why the current Commonwealth education minister is seeking to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year).

The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.

The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented.  It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding has not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful. Announcing the intention to cut funding via national media, and releasing some select figures, but not sharing the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers to allow for informed discussion is neither transparent nor cooperative.

Whatever happens today, where there is "broad agreement" on reform directions or a "firey exchange" nothing will be finalized today.  This is an early discussion only, and any new agreement would not begin until 2018. 

Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the "Gonksi" funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation - The Australian Education Act - which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.

And at end of day each government minister will do what it thinks is best for their own government’s agenda(s) and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism.  Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.

While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) has stagnated or fallen as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs – such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (preschools) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their learning and development at school.

We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility Australia has not just to those students, but to the whole country.

For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of my website, and in my PhD.