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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Education – “united front” urgently needed

The election campaign is entering its third week with media attention still locked onto contentious policy costings and every move made by the leaders of the big two parties as they take their “show” on the road. Hardly mentioned is the issue of education. Tony Abbott sought to blur the differences between the Coalition and the ALP on the eve of the campaign. He claimed to have made a U-turn on “Gonski” school funding, saying there is now a united front between the government and the opposition. The Australian Education Union sounded the warning bell. “Overall, the Coalition plan for extra schools funding comes up $7 billion short. Their proposal would deliver just one third of that committed by the Labor government,” AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said.

It was natural that Mr Abbott would want to go “small target” on school funding. The public system is starved for funding and parents are worried for the future of their kids in a tightening job market. The days of generous school hall stimulus spending are over while the reality of a drift away from public education has remained. “Gonski” dollars will be welcome and Labor has made the biggest commitment to deliver them but on fundamental issues there is, indeed, a united front between the big parties of capitalism.

Both the ALP and the Coalition are committed to greater school “autonomy” as a step to the un-publicised goal of the privatisation of public education. States have travelled along this path at various speeds with Victoria leading the charge during Kennett’s budget slashing years in office and NSW bringing up the rear. Both major parties claim the “experts” agree there is a direct link between school autonomy and student performance. When the claim is scratched, however, the “experts” are mostly from the US where private operators are making tidy profits from running formerly public schools. Private profits and honesty don’t sit well together.

The experience in New Zealand and the UK is less hyped and the conclusions are not so flattering for “charter” or “partnership” schools. Collaboration between schools has evaporated as they compete for enrolments. In Australia the difference in student NAPLAN scores between Victoria and NSW – the fastest and slowest states to have applied school autonomy – are negligible. Australia has yet to take the leap into “charters schools” or a voucher system for people to shop around in an overwhelmingly private “market” for their children’s education. Some mechanisms have been put in place, such as NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website, but both sides are coy about the next logical steps.

Labor draws attention to the Liberals’ “Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians” document, which says an Abbott government will “work with the states and territories to encourage state schools to choose to become independent schools.” The Coalition insists the wording simply means allowing school principals to have more power over staffing, courses and managing budgets in return for more funding and professional development, i.e. the same policy pushed by Labor for several years now. It is contained in their Better Schools plan and was central to the Gonski reforms it was based on.

Labor notes the term “independent school” means something specific in the Australian context – a not-for-profit, privately owned and run school, usually with a religious affiliation, which receives state and Commonwealth funding. The “not-for-profit” tag is not a big issue in Australia where public education is hanging on but it is ground for a major controversy in Chile where the neo-liberal project in education has gone furthest in the years of the Pinochet dictatorship and after. Students have been protesting vigorously for years for the private operators to open their books to show the true cost and true beneficiaries of neo-liberal education. Their demands are clear – free, secular, public education of high quality for all!

Chile’s dismal reality may well be a glimpse into our future. Australia’s own zealots for privatisation will continue to point to “success stories” for their plans and the “reforms” required to achieve them. Students won’t benefit from the chaos the changes will generate but the anti-people cause of privatisation certainly will. Students, unions and communities need to form their own “united front” to defend public education because it is clear the major parties won’t.   

Next article – Patients before profits

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