Public education: Rudd continues Howard's attacks

In the lead-up to last year's federal election, the then-Labor opposition worked furiously to narrow the policy difference between itself and the Howard government.

The Labor Party adopted whole swathes of Coalition industrial relations policy (including the retention of the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission, restrictions on union officials' right of entry to work sites and the requirement of secret ballots before strikes). Labor also pledged its support for the Howard government's war in Afghanistan and to maintain Australian involvement in Iraq. Labor leader Kevin Rudd declared himself a "fiscal conservative".

The two areas in which Rudd chose to differentiate himself from then-PM John Howard were on climate change and education. Rudd promised action on global warming and an "education revolution".

The reality of the government's carbon pollution reduction scheme is a half-hearted emissions trading scheme: Labor has ignored the advice of its own researcher, Ross Garnaut, and will give permits to pollute to the largest, and most polluting, industries free of charge.

It has also shown itself ever willing to water down the scheme even further, as its craven response to bullying from the Business Council of Australia, which is demanding even greater compensation for big business, has shown.

So what about the "education revolution"? Well, it has not got off to a great start.

During the federal election campaign, Rudd promised a $1 billion fund to guarantee access to a computer for every school student from year 9-12. He also pledged that they would all connect to a state-of-the-art broadband system, making schools "digital schools".

In reality, after nine months of the Rudd government, not one extra laptop computer has been installed as the government has not provided funding for the installation, cabling and other essentials and the states have refused to fund the shortfall.

On August 27, Rudd gave an "agenda-setting" speech at the National Press Club, outlining his government's real plan for the "education revolution" - a recycling of discredited Howard policy.

In the interest of guaranteeing "greater transparency", Rudd promised to implement a plan for the establishment of league tables comparing schools' performance, to give parents the ability to "walk with their feet" and choose a better-performing school. The plan is practically identical to a Howard government policy floated in 2004, which was blocked by opposition from the (Labor) state governments.

In detail, Rudd's plan would tie federal education funding to an agreement with the states that they would implement a system whereby parents would be able to access comparisons between the educational outcomes of schools "with a similar mix of students and similar starting points", he said.

"What parents most want to know is what difference a school is going to make - in other words, the extent to which it is adding value to the results of their students", Rudd said. Wealthier parents would then be able to choose to send their children to a higher-performing (most likely private) school in their area, further entrenching the existing educational segregation in disadvantaged areas.

As for the "underperforming" schools, Rudd promised they would initially be given an injection of $500,000 to improve standards. If, after a year, standards had not improved, Rudd's expectation would be that the principal and senior teachers would be sacked or the school merged with a "higher performing" school nearby.

Rudd also promised to implement an Australian version of the discredited British and US programs, Teach First and Teach for America, "where highly talented graduates are given an accelerated pathway into teaching, placed into the most challenging school environments and paid at a higher rate".

After a short contract in these "most challenging" schools, the "highly talented" are given their choice of jobs elsewhere, leaving the disadvantaged schools to their own devices. Rudd also promised a federal version of performance-based pay for teachers - a system whereby a small number of teachers are paid at a higher rate than other experienced classroom teachers, forcing teachers to compete among themselves for limited teaching spaces and breaking down workplace solidarity.

In his speech, Rudd was quick to point out that the details of his policy had yet to be formulated. He promised a round of "argy-bargy" with the states to win their support for the plan, support which was immediately forthcoming from the Victorian, West Australian and Queensland governments, and tentatively offered by New South Wales.

The Australian Education Union and its state-based affiliates have condemned Rudd's education plan. Angelo Gavrielatos, federal president of the AEU, said in a comment piece on the union's website on September 1: "The Education Revolution teachers want is one that delivers what our students need - smaller class sizes, more individual attention for special need and modern buildings and facilities."

"Kevin Rudd's Education Revolution seems to be about picking a fight with the education unions. If it's a revolution it's already turned full circle and come back to the Howard government blame game that helped to undermine morale in an already extraordinarily challenging profession", Gavrielatos continued.

The AEU has called attention to a report by Dr Jim McMorrow called Reviewing the evidence: Issues in Commonwealth funding of government and non-government schools in the Howard and Rudd years, which shows that an immediate injection of $1.5 billion is needed to restore federal funding of public schools to 1996 levels.

Rudd rejected not only the findings of the report, but the very principle of increasing funding to public schools as a means to improve educational outcomes. "I think we've got to put ancient debates behind us, which are purely about throwing resources at one end of the system without measuring the results at the other end of the system", he told the August 29 Australian.

The Rudd government's neoliberal agenda for education ignores the massive funding shortfall faced by public schools, particularly in disadvantaged rural and remote areas, along with the outer-fringe suburbs of large cities. Injecting $1.5 billion, as recommended by McMorrow's report, or indeed $2.9 billion - the annual federal funding shortfall for public schools - would "reduce class sizes and provide more individual attention and special learning programs for those students who need it", Gavrielatos argued. "They could update old buildings and facilities, or build badly needed new ones. They could offer greater variety of programs and subjects."

Greens Senator Christine Milne endorsed the AEU's call for an injection of an extra $1.5 billion, saying on August 27, "The only way we can achieve the education revolution towards a better educated and more innovative Australia is for our public schools to be properly funded and staffed."

NSW teacher and Socialist Alliance activist Vivian Messimeris argued that the AEU's rejection of Rudd's "education revolution" needed to go further. "It's ridiculous and completely misleading to compare 'educational outcomes' for private and public schools, even in the same region", she told Green Left Weekly on September 3. "Private schools are better resourced than government schools. They are not required to offer an education to any student who wants to enrol, regardless of ability, and they do not face the kinds of behavioural problems that some government schools have to contend with.

"The AEU should be calling for a complete end to government funding of private schools", Messimeris said. "This would free up the $7 billion a year spent by many of these schools on building a new rifle-range or swimming pool for their already privileged students, to be spent where it's really needed.

"The idea that the parents of most of my students could 'walk with their feet' to a better performing school is a joke. Rudd needs to provide real resources to guarantee smaller classes and decent facilities, to allow teachers to provide the 'educational outcomes' that he's talking about. Punishing 'underperforming schools' will only make the disadvantage worse."