Private schools: no government funding

November 29, 2000


Most recent debate over government funding of private schools has focused on the injustice of public money being used to finance wealthy private schools. There has been little debate on the issue of why government money should be given to private schools, regardless of whether they are elite schools charging high fees or poor religious schools charging lower fees.

No government money should be granted to any private school that charges fees. It is obviously unfair for government money to be given to schools that the majority of parents could not afford to send their children to.

No government money should be used to fund religion, including religious schools. The separation of church and state is a provision of the Australian constitution which should be defended in the face of attempts by the federal government to sidestep it.

The federal Coalition government's implementation of a policy that allocates the majority of education funds to private schools, when well over 90% of these schools are religious, is a reversion to pre-1870 education policy.

In the early 1800s, the colonial governments funded the Anglican clergy to establish schools in each parish. After 1831, the policy was changed so that the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church received an equal share of government school funding. It wasn't until the 1850s that the colonial governments were pressured into also providing funds for government schools.

Church schools lost government funding after the 1870s. Beginning in Victoria in 1871, each colonial government passed legislation to provide free, compulsory secular education during the 1870s. It was not until 1963 that the churches were successful in convincing the federal government, and later the state governments, to fund their schools.

Religious takeover of social services

The federal government's school funding formula, which favours private religious schools over free, secular government schools, is an extension of its pro-religion policies. Since winning government in 1996, the Coalition has sought to increase the influence over social policy by the most conservative religious institutions.

The Salvation Army and Mission Australia won the lion's share of job network contracts this year and government ministers have defended these institutions' right to discriminate against non-Christians in their hiring practices. The government is relying on church-run charities to provide a social safety net as it progressively cuts people off welfare.

The Salvation Army's Major Brian Watters was appointed to lead Canberra's harsh "zero tolerance" drugs policy. IVF treatment for lesbians and single women was banned and the censorship board has been stacked with religious moralists.

While Australian capitalists would find it intolerable to operate in a state governed by religious laws, religion is still useful for them as a means of conservatising the population.

During the first half of the 19th century, the states gave generous subsidies to all Christian groups for their expansion. The rationale was that religious proselytising would foster social stability and obedience.

South Australia was the first colonial government to abolish state aid to religion in 1851, followed by the NSW in 1865 and Victoria in 1870.

After federation in 1901, schools were funded by state governments. It was not until 1951 that the federal government, under Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies, again sought to encourage private religious schools. In 1951, private school fees up to a certain amount were made tax deductible; gifts for school buildings were made tax deductible in 1954.

In 1963, the federal government began making specific grants to state governments for expenditure on school science blocks and apparatus for both government and private secondary schools. More than a quarter of this aid went to private schools.

Labor, Coalition boost private schools

While support for private schools was initiated by Coalition governments, it was Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's federal Labor government that began to directly fund private schools

In 1973, the Labor government, with the support of the Coalition parties, institutionalised federal (and state) government funding for private schools. However, 70% of federal school funds continued to be allocated to government schools.

Bob Hawke's federal Labor government in 1983 abandoned the 70% public school funding guarantee and began allocating a higher proportion of federal funding to private schools.

With these precedents, it was easy for Prime Minister John Howard's Coalition government to make school funding even more unfair. Under its proposed funding formula currently being debated in federal parliament, public schools will get only 32% of federal funds, even though they educate 70% of the country's children. State and territory governments also contribute about 18% of private school funding.

Two key policy shifts exposed the Howard government's ideologically driven support for private religious schools: the 1997 abandonment of minimum requirements for the establishment of new schools (which were part of Labor's New Schools Policy) and the introduction of the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment (EBA) scheme.

With the demise of the New Schools Policy there are no minimum or maximum enrolment requirements before a new private school is eligible for government funding. Between 1997 and 1999, 185 new private schools were opened.

The EBA scheme was introduced by the federal government as a tricky means to channel money from public schools to private schools. As the proportion of private school students has increased — even as the total number of public school students has also increased — the federal government has cut its public school funding grants to state governments.

A research paper written by Roy Martin for the federal office of the Australian Education Union, "Trends in new non-government schools 1997-1999", pointed out that although the proportion of school students attending private schools only increased by 2.43% over the past decade, between 1993/94 and 1997/98, private school funding by all levels of government increased by 23.5% in real terms while public school funding decreased by 5%.

Martin disputes claims that the drift to private schools is driven by demand. "The supply is being increased through new schools, new locations, new options and aggressive marketing by new and existing [private] schools... Rather than new schools opening as the result of parental demand, it would seem that the initiative comes from those wishing to run schools. The majority of schools are small to begin with and some never get beyond that, whilst a few actually close. This supply driven growth is illustrated most clearly by those schools which have opened and then closed through lack of numbers, and by one particular school (Galilee Day Program in the ACT) which has apparently opened without any students."

Of the 127 new private schools opened between 1997 and 1998, only 23 (6.39%) were not religious. According to the Independent Education Union (IEU), which represents teachers employed by private schools, the growth in new schools has mostly been from "independent" Christian schools in the outer suburbs of the major cities. The purpose of these Christian fundamentalist schools is to recruit to their religions.

This was also a motive for the older Catholic school system. A Catholic Education Office survey conducted between 1965 and 1970 showed that 80% of Catholics educated at Catholic schools maintained their religious practice in adult life; less than half the Catholics educated in the state school system remained active in the church.

The federal government tries to shroud its preferential treatment for private religious schools with the rhetoric of "choice". The IEU, which supports funding for private schools, puts a progressive spin on this argument.

In its "Education issues" statement (October 21), the IEU stated: "The Australian community, with its traditions of Irish Catholicism, Lutheranism, Greek Orthodoxy and those of the Jewish and Islamic communities among others, has long supported the right of these cultures and traditions to establish their own educational institutions and practices... [The] serious acceptance of religious and ethnic diversity are reflected in public support for non-government schools and systems which embody tradition and values."

No public money for religion

Such arguments are furphies. Of course, religious schools should not be banned. Private religious and non-religious schools should be allowed to operate, but they should do so without any government assistance.

If all funding for private schools dried up tomorrow — as it should — religious schools would continue to exist, as they did after government funding for religious schools ended in the 1870s. The establishment churches, and also some of the newer Christian fundamentalist churches, are very wealthy. Most churches have multi-million dollar investments in property, businesses and shares.

Some people who oppose government funding for wealthy private schools still advocate government funding for poor or low-fee private schools. The only "low-fee" private schools are religious schools, and they exist only to promote religious ideas.

Others argue that in private schools, religion is not a big part of the curriculum and therefore government funding is acceptable. While this may be true to some extent, religious moral ideas and the ideology of privilege still permeate.

Because most private schools are religious schools, they are automatically exempt from NSW anti-discrimination legislation and federal human rights laws.

Private religious schools and the conservative ideology they propagate attempt to stamp out radical left-wing ideas. For example, in 1992 in NSW, a group of elite private school principals blocked changes to the school syllabus which were designed to encourage students to study the physical and natural environment through the perspectives of different groups, including Aborigines, women, migrants and the various social classes.

A letter from the group accused the syllabus committee of trying to "change our Judaeo-Christian mind-set and way of looking at the world" and requiring "us to think like an Aboriginal. How do we do that? Why should we do that?", they bleated.

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