Why public funding for private schools is unfair

The King’s School boasts 14 tennis courts, a golf driving range, rifle range, a state of the art gym, a 50 metre Olympic swimming pool and indoor training areas.

In September, the federal Coalition government announced it would provide an extra $4.5 billion directly to fee-charging Catholic and independent schools, to be spent any way they choose.

NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes commented that his government will not sign up to a needs-based, sector-blind funding scheme, but it is neither of those things.

Many Australians do not understand how government (public) and private schools are funded and find the whole issue bewildering. Many politicians use words such as “needs-based funding”, “Gonski 1 and 2”, “parental choice” and “sector-blind funding” to hide the way government and non-government schools are funded and the horrible inequality that exists between the two sectors.

The government has capped public school funding at only 20% of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), which is an estimate of how much total taxpayer funding a school requires to meet the educational needs of its students. Private schools get 80% of SRS.

Research by the NSW Teachers Federation has revealed that 87% of public schools will remain funded below the minimum SRS for the foreseeable future, but 65% of private schools will be funded above it. Australia already has one of the world’s most unequal education systems and this widens that inequality.

Four-out-of -five children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds in Australia are educated in public schools. Most of the students who attend fee-charging private schools are not disadvantaged. 

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, released last year, revealed that Australian government schools receive the third-lowest funding in the OECD, with only Turkey and Colombia doing worse.

Union campaign

The Australian Education Union (AEU) is planning to campaign against the "special deal" for private schools by targeting eight Liberal-held seats in the lead-up to the federal election.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said: “There is not one single dollar in this $4.5 billion funding deal for our children in public schools. Instead the [Scott] Morrison government is pouring billions of dollars into the richest private schools in the country.

“Private schools have already been handed $1.9 billion in capital works special deal funding by the Morrison government. However public schools do not get a single dollar from the Commonwealth for classrooms, libraries and other state of the art learning facilities.

“There are state elections looming in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as a federal election. Public school funding is going to be a critical issue in all of these. Parents in public school communities understand the importance of fully funding public schools and they vote.

“Current federal funding arrangements will leave nearly nine in 10 public schools in Australia without enough funding to meet the needs of each student by 2023.

"It’s clear what needs to happen. The Morrison government must lift its contribution to public school funding.”

Rich and poor schools

A comparison of two very different schools highlights the inequality.

King’s School in Sydney charges up to $35,000 a year in student fees. Its website states: “There are very few junior and primary schools that enjoy a more gracious and attractive site than the King's School Preparatory School. Nestled among 300 acres of gracious parkland, complete with lakes, lawns, gardens and woodland, the boys at the Prep School are able to learn and play in an environment which is a ‘boy heaven’.

“Modelled on the Oxford and Cambridge model of grassed quads, the Senior School is made up of graceful colonnaded buildings. The terracotta columns, sandstone and open veranda areas evoke a distinctly classical feel … Its sports facilities feature extensive playing fields, a strength and conditioning centre, tennis courts, rowing facilities, rifle range, basketball courts and swimming pools.”

The King’s School will receive a government funding rise of $19.3 million over the next decade, while per student funding will rise from $4527 this year to $6849 in 2027, a 50% rise over the decade.

Girraween Public School, 30 kilometres west of Sydney’s CBD, is part of the Greater Western Sydney region and is only 10 kilometres from King’s School.

Like so many other government schools, it lacks even the most basic facilities. Girraween is in crisis due to overcrowded classrooms and schoolyards.

Girraween now has 29 portable classrooms — installed in areas that used to be set aside for students’ play and recreation — and just 16 permanent ones.

Recess and lunch times have been staggered to deal with the schoolyard squeeze. The students cannot all have lunch at the same time because there is not enough room in the small playground.

The school holds close to 1000 pupils who have to cross two major roads to reach a local park for sports activities. A grandparent said that no new classrooms had been built at the school in the past eight years and he believes the Education Department isfailing the children.

Girraween’s students come mostly from working-class families, and 93% from a non-English speaking background. These students have nothing like the state-of-the-art infrastructure King’s School can provide for the children of the super-rich.

Catholic Education lobby

Meanwhile, the Catholic Education lobby conducted a powerful campaign against the Coalition’s SRS policy, writing to parents before the Batman and Longman byelections to warn of possible fee rises and school closures.

The Catholic sector argued that its primary schools should be able to charge low fees, even in wealthier areas. However, its claim that parents in advantaged Catholic primary schools cannot afford the raised fees has been shown to be inaccurate.

Despite this, part of the $4.5 billion — $1.2 billion — has been set aside to keep school fees “affordable”, among other priorities. But the fund is only available to Catholic and independent schools. Government schools do not have access to this funding.

Morrison denied suggestions that in providing the extra funding to the private schools he had caved in to pressure exerted by the Catholic schools lobby.

But it is likely that with a federal election to be held before next May, Morrison wanted to cancel any threat from this group.

Teachers’ unions, Labor and the Greens have raised concerns about the amount of funds going to private schools, but none have questioned whether we as a society benefit from handing enormous amounts of taxpayer funds to religious and other wealthy private schools run on a business model.

Nor have they focused on the fact that this undermines the democratic notion of the separation of church and state and social equality. There is no sound reason to have two different types of schools if we are to treat all our children fairly. Providing a second-class system to most students while using government money to boost schools for the wealthy is unconscionable.

The debate about the right of religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students or teachers highlights another reason why private schools should not receive any taxpayers’ money. On the one hand, these schools want money from all Australians, regardless of our religiosity, but they do not want to open their doors to all Australians. While they demand taxpayers’ money, they are not prepared to teach a curriculum that does not discriminate against some of us.

To achieve equal educational opportunities we need a well-funded, well-resourced school system that provides every student with the chance to develop to their maximum potential.

This will be achieved through a secular, non-discriminating government school system. In that system, any private schools that cater to religious or other special interests would not receive any public funds.

[Mary Merkenich is a Socialist Alliance member and an AEU state councillor in Victoria.]