Over the past decade, the Australian Education Union-led (AEU) schools funding campaign has put the issue at the front of the national political debate. It has convinced governments at federal and state and territory levels to sign on to funding agreements.
These agreements lift public schools to a national Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). They also provide additional funding to meet the greater educational needs of students with disabilities, Aboriginal students, students from low income families, students learning English as an additional language or dialect, and those in remote and rural locations.
In NSW, this was achieved through the National Educational Reform Agreement (NERA) that was agreed between a federal Labor government and a state Coalition government.
But in the early hours of June 23, the Malcolm Turnbull government, supported in the Senate by independent Jacqui Lamble, the Nick Xenophon team and four One Nation Senators, pushed through its school funding legislation. The law unilaterally terminates all NERAs and dismantles the needs-based schools funding model. The government’s own figures show this will result in a $22.3 billion funding cut to public schools over the next 10 years.
Before the release of the Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Review Report) in 2012, school funding had, for decades, been characterised by successive federal governments shifting ever-increasing funding to the non-government schools sector. During the John Howard years, the lie that the Commonwealth had primary responsibility for funding private schools, and the states for public schools, was promulgated.
The recommendations of the Gonski report formed the basis for the Rudd and Gillard governments’ National Plan for School Improvement, which was developed in consultation with state and territory education ministers. It sought to establish a new national needs-based, sector‑blind school funding model.
While far from perfect, this funding model began in 2014, under the Tony Abbott government. Private schools continued to be funded, but the vast majority of funding was directed to public schools to lift to the national SRS. This was a game changer for public schools and the reason why successive coalition governments have attempted to dismantle it.
Unfortunately, the seven-year funding agreement was backend loaded with two-thirds of Gonski funding to be delivered in 2018–19. Once all schools had met the national SRS, the full Gonski funding was to continue into perpetuity.
So far, public schools have used these funds to establish smaller class sizes and provide specialist teachers, additional literacy and numeracy support, new technology for students, additional support for students with complex learning needs and the professional development for teachers.
The federal Coalition has never accepted the principle that both federal and state governments have responsibility for funding public education. It has consistently attempted to undermine the needs-based funding model and deceive the public.
Under the Howard government, two-thirds of federal government funds went to private schools that educated one-third of students. From the release of the Gonski report to Turnbull’s unilateral termination of the NERA, the federal Coalition has consistently opposed a genuine sector-blind, needs-based school funding model. The Turnbull government has been unwilling to negotiate with the states, teacher organisations or parent groups on any cuts to schools funding.
Funding for elite schools
The Turnbull government’s legislation unilaterally terminated all NERAs and dismantled the needs-based schools funding model. As a result, all private schools will automatically receive 80% of the SRS from the Commonwealth, regardless of need. By contrast, public schools will receive only 20% of the SRS from the Commonwealth. In addition, all private schools also receive state funding, many above 20% of the SRS. These schools will now reach 100% or more of the SRS from combined federal and state funding.
Many elite private schools will receive enormous funding increases. The King’s School in Sydney, for instance, will receive an additional $19 million over the decade compared to the original agreement. Geelong Grammar in Victoria will receive an additional $16 million; Friends’ School in Hobart will receive $19 million extra; and Churchie in Brisbane will receive about $17 million in additional funding.
Public schools will not reach 95% of the SRS until at least 2023. This 80:20 ratio enshrines in law an ongoing federal government commitment of 80% of the SRS funding to private schools.
Cuts to public schools
The unilateral termination of the previous funding agreements with the states means billions of dollars due in 2018 will not be delivered to public schools. Some schools, therefore, will receive only 10% of the funds needed to lift student outcomes.
Schools in NSW will lose $1.5 billion over the next four years. All but 10 public schools in NSW will have their funding slashed in real terms. The NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) obtained confidential information, received under a Government Information Public Access (formerly Freedom of Information) request, revealing the extent of the cuts in a school-by-school analysis.
NSWTF deputy president Gary Zadkovich said on May 11: “The Commonwealth signed up to provide $1.1 billion in 2018 and 2019 to help NSW public school students achieve their education potential. The callousness of the Turnbull plan is evident in the scrapping of the pledge to provide additional Commonwealth funding for students with disability.
“No matter how much Prime Minister Turnbull and Education Minister Birmingham use deceit and political spin, these figures show how much every public school in NSW will lose under their funding plan.”
Some examples of the funding cuts for NSW public schools in 2018 and 2019 are:
- North Strathfield Public School will lose $513,300;
- Cranbrook High School will lose $1,225,357;
- Braddock Public School will lose $542,319;
- Campbelltown Performing Arts High School will lose $1,276,547;
- Narellan Vale Public School will lose $624,350;
- Willoughby Girls High will lose $624,350;
- Merewether High School will lose $540,451;
- Lismore Public School will lose $457,662;
- Hillvue Public School will lose $1,473,839; and
- Armidale High School will lose $538,715.
The cuts to funding projections for each NSW public school under the Turnbull government can be found on the NSWTF website.
The original Turnbull plan was for all schools to reach the 80% and 20% levels after 10 years. Overwhelming pressure from public school supporters forced the government to reduce this to six years and provide an additional $4.9 billion to meet the compressed timeframe.
Students with disabilities
The federal government was scheduled to fully fund the Students with Disability (SWD) loading in 2015. This has not happened. Under the new legislation, students with disabilities will continue to be seriously underfunded and seriously impact on about 268,000 students with disabilities. The SWD funding will be cut in some states and territories.
Despite previous commitments, the federal government will now attempt to force this enormous funding shortfall onto the states or risk additional funding cuts. Turnbull’s action contradicts a central feature of the original Gonski funding model that acknowledged that the federal government has the greatest capacity to raise revenue so it should make the greatest funding contribution.
The NSWTF annual conference on July 3 reaffirmed its commitment to continue the campaign to ensure every public school is resourced to a level that meets all students’ needs.
All children, irrespective of their backgrounds, geographical location or ability, deserve the highest quality education. Public schools educate the overwhelming majority of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and those with special needs. Improved student learning requires additional teachers, support staff and additional resources for professional teacher development and curriculum implementation. Only a properly funded public school education system can deliver this.
Both Labor and the Greens opposed Turnbull’s plans to cut school funding and have made calls to lift all public schools to the SRS. NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon played a principled role in ensuring her party stuck to its original position on Gonski funding for schools. She has since been the target of a vicious attack from the Greens federal party room.
The AEU will continue to pressure all political parties at a state and federal level to restore a fully funded model that ensures all students’ needs are met.
At this stage, both Labor and the Greens say they will take a more progressive policy platform to the next federal election. Their position is replicated at the state level.
The NSW Coalition government continues to support the NERA. NSW education minister Rob Stokes wrote in the June edition of Education, the journal of the NSWTF: “[NERA] represents billions more for schools in NSW and it’s a deal that we are going to hold the federal government to account. We signed this deal in good faith and we expect it to be honoured.”
The AEU campaign has relied on building alliances with parents, teachers, principals, communities and unions. The AEU has also achieved broad community engagement through door knocking, stalls, petitioning, advertising, Gonski buses and rallies.
The Turnbull government, with the support of the corporate media, has tricked people into believing that public schools will now be adequately funded and resourced. This lie must be exposed and the AEU will invest significant amounts of resources and training of activists to educate the public about the reality of the cuts.
[John Gauci is the secretary of the Inner City Teachers Association, a member of the NSWTF Council and a member of Socialist Alliance.]