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Issue #1685      May 20, 2015

Public funding of private schools

How many of you have travelled overseas by plane? If like me you travel economy – I am sure that you have envied those up front as you enter the plane in Business Class at a steal of $6,000. And what about those in First Class who have a chauffeured car pick them up from home, personalised immigration and lounge services, whole room and a personal menu sommelier and butler, all for only $10,000!

Students at Glenmore State School (Rockhampton) are given a presentation by BushTV ( about a career in media.

We all get to the destination at the some time, just with a different modicum of comfort. But do the people in First or Business expect those of us in cattle class or even those who do not fly to subsidise their lifestyle choice?

Well, that’s how our education system in Australia works!

Australia is one of the very few countries in the OECD that publicly funds students in private schools. More than 40 percent of Australian secondary children now attend private schools – either so-called independent or religious schools. Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the OECD.

Prior to the late 1960s private schools received no government funding whatsoever in this country. While most OECD countries have a private school system, very few of them receive public funding. Think about England, the home of the elite private school, and the exclusive private schools in the USA: not one cent of taxpayers’ money goes into their budgets.

Priority must be public education

The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth. No better mechanism for creating a well-educated general population has so far been discovered.

The choice model promoted by federal and state governments has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally. The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students.

Choice is only available for those who have the wherewithal to make that choice. We have heard about the end of the age of entitlement. However, when a person on the basic wage of $55,000 a year pays his or her taxes, that person does not have a choice, but their taxes go to enable someone who is on a salary of $150,000 or more per annum to exercise that choice. So it is a bogus choice. Over the last 40 years we have seen an increasing commitment to privatisation of our education system.

Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote that:

“It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further ‘evidence’ to support their position and for even more far-reaching change.”

The more that our public education system becomes residualised the greater will be the flight of those who can flee. People are now buying properties in middle class suburbs in order to be in the zone for the middle class schools. Property values have gone up more than $150,000 in those areas. It is still cheaper than sending your child to the equivalent independent school – instead of sending them to Scotch College you would send them to, for example, Balwyn High.

Government schools therefore experience a higher demand on their existing resource base than similar private schools operating within the same area. Indeed, they can find themselves in the position of having to cater for students where the private systems have been unable to meet a student’s educational needs.

Immediate requirement

Additional funding is an immediate requirement if equity of outcome is to be achieved by all students. It is not the responsibility of governments to fund private schools or families using private schools; that responsibility rests – or should rest with the private individual or the private institution.

Since the 1970s Australia has seen significant increase in inequity of funding and has a much wider achievement gap. In fact we can actually chart the decline in our PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results with the growth of state and federal funding of private schools; they correlate. International comparisons show Australian students are among the best performers in the world but one of the lowest ranking in terms of the size of the achievement gap.

Middle-class parents, well-educated parents, parents who have got university degrees – their children will do well no matter where they go. We know, from research that has been done, that 50 percent of a child’s academic outcomes – not that that is the only measure – is derived from their home background, before they set foot in the school. Increasing funding for well-resourced and middle class schools where there is a lot of what is called cultural capital already in place is not going to further advantage those children. It is a case of diminishing returns, because adding extra money at that top level is not going to give you any advantage. In fact it is wasted money. Where we need to be focusing as much of our pie as possible is on the long tail of underachievement.

Chile’s divestment in private schools

It’s time to rethink this mistaken inequitable policy and, like Chile, stop all public funding to private schools and redirect it to disadvantaged public schools. Due to the market structure imposed in the 1980s by Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, the education system is the most socioeconomically segregated in the OECD, favouring private, for-profit schools with nearly 52 percent of enrolled students attending them. The same thing has occurred here in Australia – not imposed by a dictator – but under our very noses in a democratic country.

These Chilean reforms include the end of public funding to private, for-profit schools, to make all primary and secondary education free of charge, and prohibit contested selective practices used in school admission processes. Their education reform bill is an upheaval of the system in order to change the benefits of education from being for an affluent minority to the deserving majority. These reforms are to be paid through new taxes on the wealthy and business.

So where is our (public) education money going?

New figures from the Productivity Commission show that government-funding increases, between 2008-09 and 2012-13, massively favoured private schools over public schools.

Funding for private schools in Victoria, for example, increased by 18.5 percent per student, or eight times that of public schools. Across Australia the dollar increase for private schools was nearly five times that for public schools. The average increase for private schools was $1,181 per student compared to only $247 for public schools.

Other research indicates clearly that the equity gap between our school systems has continued to grow since the Gonski review in 2011.

Each private school pupil now receives, on average, a non-means-tested public subsidy of over $8,000 per year at the expense of the less privileged public school student. So much for the end of the age of entitlement!

Do private schools outperform public schools? Is there a return on this public investment?

Parents can spend up to $30,000 a year on private education. According to the Australian Scholarship Group, the forecast cost of sending a child to private school in Melbourne is $504,000 over 13 years of schooling after tax, in addition to the massive public subsidy these schools receive.

A new analysis of school NAPLAN test results shows that the results in like public schools are just as good as those in private schools. The analysis reported:

“The often-presumed better results of private schools are a myth. Public schools are the equal of private schools. Public, Catholic and independent schools with a similar socioeconomic composition have very similar results.”

Other research found similar results for HSC in NSW:

“If you’re just looking at academic results, it probably isn’t worth paying all that money for an elite private school.”

But don’t private schools save public money? We all pay taxes!

The private school lobby often makes this spurious claim alongside the claim that those who choose private schools already pay taxes so should receive at least a contribution from their taxes to pay for that education choice.

Independent Schools Victoria claims that sending a child to a private school is actually a saving to the taxpayer of $5,000 per student.

This is akin to the Automobile Chamber of Commerce suggesting the use of private cars not only saves public money on public transport but actually wanting their members to receive a subsidy on the purchase of their new Mercedes or BMW.

Similarly no one believes that those choosing to use private toll roads should receive a subsidy for the use of the toll instead of driving on the public and free road system that their taxes have funded.

Ongoing disparity

The massive ongoing disparity in funding increases for public and private schools is a national disgrace and scandal. The learning needs of disadvantaged students are being ignored by the priority given to funding more privileged sections of the community.

Unacceptably large percentages of low socioeconomic status, Indigenous and remote area students do not achieve national standards in literacy and numeracy. There are huge achievement gaps between rich and poor schools.

More than 80 percent of low socioeconomic and Indigenous students are enrolled in public schools. Only the full implementation of the Gonski recommendations would ensure that we improve educational outcomes in our under-resourced public schools without additional drain on the budget bottom line.

Given there is an ever-shrinking tax base, we need a discussion about gradually reducing public funding to private schools by 25 percent every four years until it is zero. This should give these schools time to get their budgets in order. Prior to 1972 they were doing quite well without public support.

Findings provide compelling evidence that “money does matter and that better school resources can meaningfully improve the long-run outcomes of recently educated children”, a paper released this month says.

“The results ... highlight how improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby significantly reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”

The Minister of Education, Christopher Pyne, has stated that “education spending increased in real terms by 44% between 2000 and 2009. Class sizes have been reduced by about the same number. We must look to the evidence to show us where we should spend taxpayers’ money”. He argues that resources are not the issue but teacher quality, principal autonomy and parental engagement are.

So what does the evidence actually show about funding?

This figure of 44 percent has been used by politicians of all sides and comes from flawed research by Jensen in the Grattan Institute. Apart from the 2008-2009 BER capital investment in all schools that helped save Australia’s economy from meltdown, Australia’s spend on education as a proportion of GDP according to the World Bank and OECD has declined from 4.9% in 1999 to 4.4% in 2008.

Over the same period government expenditure on education as a percentage of total government expenditure in Australia fell from 14.2% to 12.9%.

Only 71% of Australian government spending goes to public schools – the majority of the increase in government school funding over the past decade has gone to private schools.

The percentage of gross domestic product spent on all education per head in Australia has dropped from almost 5.5% in 1974 to 4.9% in 2012. Over the same period Australian governments have transferred large amounts of public money to private schools.

More importantly the gap between the lowest and top-performing students as is evidenced by the PISA results, NAPLAN results, continues to widen. The Minister claims that “much of this expenditure in the last 20 to 30 years has gone towards efforts to reduce class sizes, despite evidence that this does not have a significant impact on improving student outcomes”. My research refutes this claim.

What has been happening over the last 20 years is a flight of the middle class from the local schools, where they can afford the choice to leave their local primary or their local secondary school which then increases the marginalisation of the children who are remaining and those parents who have absolutely no choice to take their children somewhere else. These schools become marginalised and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Hence over the last 10 years we can see the decline in our results in PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, and in NAPLAN as well in these particular schools. With the movement of middle-class cultural capital out of these schools, the peer support, which research shows is almost as important as the school itself, who you go to school with is almost as important as the school itself in its contribution to students’ academic outcomes. They become marginalised and that peer factor needs to be alleviated with increased funding to support that disadvantage.

What needs to be done?

What we need are targeted resources to support students and teachers related to the school’s needs. This can ensure that all students meet required standards.

We need to deliver the most funds and resources to students who are the most difficult to teach. These schools need the best teachers, and students must get more time to enable them to catch up.

Funding should continue to be directed to students through their school systems and funding systems should be designed to ensure that these funds are directed to the schools on the basis of need.

In terms of prosperity and stability, strong, well-funded and supported public education systems are indispensable. In sheer economic terms, the fact that other nations are more equitably educating all their available talent will inevitably rebound on our international competitiveness in the future.

The equity implications of school Socioeconomic Status are considerable. Not only are individual students advantaged or disadvantaged by their own background but the impact of this can be reduced or magnified in the schools they attend. School choice is exercised in Australia, favouring those with resources for choice – while reducing opportunities for disadvantaged students who are increasingly sitting in classrooms alongside their own peers.

One of the things that independent schools do, especially the high fee-charging independent schools, is cherry-pick the best from the public school system to enhance their final-year outcomes, to raise them up the ladder. They offer them scholarships and they therefore attract them to their schools. Again that diminishes the local public school and enhances their reputation. Of course, when independent schools have children who are troublesome, they shunt them off as they can, because it is within their right to do so, back to the public school system – because the public school system has to take all children regardless of their needs or difficulties. Of course it is also anecdotally known that the private schools do not shunt off high performers, no matter what they do. If their students are high-performing and yet they are a bit naughty, they will tolerate them because that will enhance their – I was going to use the words “bottom line”, but it is actually their upper line – their achievement level.

Want I want to emphasise is funding according to real need:

  • Properly resource those schools which disproportionately serve the most needy students.
  • Enhance confidence in apparently underachieving schools.

Bestselling author David Gillespie shows parents how to choose the best school for their kids, how to avoid fees, and how to make a less-than-perfect system better.

David Gillespie has six kids. Like many parents, he and his wife faced some tough decisions when it came to choosing a high school. He calculated that sending his kids to a private school would cost him $1.3 million. A businessman at heart, he thought it worth doing some research to find out what he’d get for his money. In other words, would his kids get better results? The answer was no.

Intrigued, David continued his research, only to discover he was wrong on most counts – as are most parents – when it comes to working out what factors deliver a great education. Among other things he found out that class size doesn’t matter, composite classes are fine, fancy buildings and rolling lawns are a waste of money, the old-school-tie network won’t cut it in the new industries and NAPLAN is misread by everyone so is largely meaningless as a measure of quality.

Though he could afford to buy the best education possible, he writes:

“Streaming our entire education system ... creating a multi-tiered system not only entrenches disadvantage at the bottom but weakens the entire system.”

The only alternative is to implement the Gonski recommendations in full

In doing so we can improve opportunities for our poorest students and families by boosting their schools – and national achievement levels. All of the most important of these reforms cost money, and if they are to achieve an impact they must be targeted strategically at areas of greatest need.

We must end the flawed SES area based model of funding that continues to fund non-government schools needs to ensure that the education system is not one that promotes social segregation and generational disadvantage. There are good grounds for funding Prep to Year 2 at the same level as secondary schools. The national SRS should provide for this.

I work in primary teacher education. Any strong outcomes that children have at the end of 12 or 13 years of education is as a result of the foundation years, the early years of education. My research into class sizes, in particular in the early years, leads me to believe that that is where we need to focus our greatest target of funding, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds – Indigenous children, migrant children, children whose second language may not be English and children from low-SES communities. It is this area where we can make the biggest difference. In fact a Nobel Laureate in economics from the United States a few years ago wrote that for every dollar you invest in early years you get $10 back in productivity gains over the life of that person.

Genuine choices

We can hardly refuse parents the right to enrol their children in any school they wish if that school meets religious or other requirements. That does not mean that the taxpayer must fund whatever lifestyle choice that parents make. A system of equal per capita grants to non-government schools is inequitable and unjust and also wasteful.

The Catholic system and the independent system are not being philanthropic. They are very exclusive. Within the Catholic sector in particular there is a large number of high fee-charging schools that receive a lot a state and federal money. In the last four years we have seen it right down the eastern seaboard – Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria – where education budgets have been cut and cut very severely to the tune of about $3 billion in total between those three states. The private sector, the independent and Catholic systems have not been touched. Their funding has been maintained.

One of the most alarming things is that in all the growth corridors of our major cities we are seeing that public infrastructure is not being supported. We are seeing the development of low fee-charging private schools, often Christian fundamentalist schools, being supported by our public taxation in those growth corridors. Our governments should be building public schools so that the parents have a choice and have the possibility of supporting public education.

Public schools are meant to be funded by the government appropriately through our taxes. Yet schools have to resort to chocolate drives, raffles and parent-run fetes to ensure that the “extras” like computers, interactive white boards and aides are available.

How many of you saw the advertisement for Catholic education “Having Faith: Catholic Education” (The Age, 22-03-2015)? It inadvertently highlighted what is wrong with the way private schools are funded. Four pages of glossy advertising featuring four elite and very advantaged Catholic schools – all with very high percentages of students from the upper two quartiles of society, the lowest at 75% the highest 95% charging parents between $5.3K and $21K per annum but receiving between $6K and $8.5K per student from public funds in 2013. De La Salle, for example, charged parents $7.8K and received $8.1K from the public – which really makes them a public school! On top of this they received between $1 .5M and $3.6M in public funds for capital works. Yet Minister Merlino has promised to ensure that these schools continue to receive as a minimum 25% of what it costs to educate students in the public system. It is time to put a halt to public funding of elite private schools and reconsider how public money is used to assist the most disadvantaged children – 8O% who attend public schools.

However, as Connell wrote in 1993, “if a poor child wants to do well in education then they should have chosen richer parents!”

My colleague Professor Jane Kenway has written that:

“We can judge the virtue of a nation by how well it treats its most vulnerable people. Equally, we can judge the virtue and thus the quality of an education system by how well it educates its most vulnerable students.”

A strong and viable government school system is vital for the nation’s future. Australian society and its distinctive values depend on the practical expression of tolerance, fairness, egalitarianism and equality of opportunity that public schools provide.

The Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul writes that “the wilful undermining of universal public education by our governments and the direct or indirect encouragement of private education is the most flagrant betrayal of the basic principles of ... representative democracy”.

On the signing of the education reform bill, President Bachelet of Chile, said:

“Today we are fulfilling what we promised Chile, to begin a process of deep transformation of our education system, which will ensure quality, gratuity, integration and an end to profit-making in education. It is not fair that the resources of the Chilean people, instead of enriching our education, enriches private individuals.”

John Ralston Saul observed that:

“Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.”

If only such a commitment would be made by Australia’s political leaders.

A talk given by Dr David Zyngier (Monash University) at the Melbourne Unitarian Church on April 12, 2015

The Beacon

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