SCHOOLS FUNDING: by Dr Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Advantages of parental choice in education
, June 11, 2011
Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping-point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”.
Based on the latest enrolment figures for the Australian Capital Territory, where the number of students enrolled in non-government secondary schools, for the first time, exceeds government school enrolments, it is clear that education is experiencing a tipping-point.
Additional evidence demonstrates that state and territory education systems are experiencing significant change, as seen in the following facts:
• Some 34 per cent of Australian students now attend Catholic and independent schools.
• While enrolments over the period 1998-2008 surged by 21.9 per cent, growth in state school enrolments flat-lined at 1.1 per cent.
Why are parents voting with their feet? And why are Catholic and independent schools so popular? One response, best represented by comments attributed to Cathy Smith, from the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union, is because government schools are under-funded (Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 2011).
Smith is also described as arguing that there is no evidence that non-government schools deliver stronger results. The teacher union spokesman is wrong on both counts.
Figures quoted in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library background note on school funding (November 2010) state that, on average, state school students receive $12,639 from state and federal governments, whereas a student at a non-government school receives $6,606.
The library paper also notes that the existing socioeconomic status (SES) funding model, currently being reviewed by a committee headed by the Sydney businessman David Gonski, is needs-based.
In relation to government funding, wealthier non-government schools receive only 13.5 per cent of the recurrent cost of educating a student at a government school, or what is known as the average government school recurrent cost (AGSRC).
Research, both nationally and internationally, also concludes that Catholic and independent schools, even after adjusting for a school’s socioeconomic profile, are able to achieve stronger results than government schools in areas such as academic standards, completion rates and entry to tertiary studies.
Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, argues that the strong performance of Catholic schools “cannot be attributed to socioeconomic background” and that students do well because of high levels of “parental and community involvement” with “higher standards of discipline and greater emphasis on academic performance”.
Researchers Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek, in studies funded by the OECD investigating stronger performing education systems, conclude that such systems are characterised by autonomy, diversity and choice in education — attributes commonly associated with non-government schools.
In a 2007 OECD study, Woessmann argues: “The empirical facts provide a clear answer. Various forms of school accountability, autonomy and choice policies combine to lift student achievement to substantially higher levels.”
Arguments in favour of school choice, where schools are given the freedom to manage their own affairs and parents are financially supported by governments regardless of the type of school attended, explain the British Government’s commitment to what are called academy schools and the growth of charter schools and innovations such as school vouchers in the United States.
In its submission to the Gonski Review the Australian Education Union, instead of supporting the right of parents to choose where their children go to school and to be properly funded, claims that government schools are the only schools that deserve financial support.
The AEU’s submission argues that the existing SES funding model is “inequitable and unsustainable” and that, in relation to non-government schools, “there is no pre-existing, pre-determined entitlement to public funding, i.e., there is no a priori justification for public funding of private schools”.
Ignored are the Australian and international human rights covenants and agreements guaranteeing parents’ rights to choose where their children go to school and the type of education they receive. Also ignored is that, as Catholic and independent school parents pay taxes and contribute to government revenue for a school system they do not use, they are entitled to some support.
In the lead-up to the 2007 and 2010 federal elections, the Australian Labor Party realised that having a hit-list of non-government schools would be political suicide as thousands of Australian families, especially those in marginal seats, are committed to sending their children to non-government schools.
The Gonski Review is due to finalise its deliberations and make recommendations by the end of the year. At that time, the ALP Government will have to decide its stance, and Australian parents will know for certain whether Julia Gillard’s promise about maintaining funding has been kept or whether it’s just an another example of political spin and opportunism.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is author of Australia’s Education Revolution (available from News Weekly Books for $29.95) and is director of the Education Standards Institute. URL: www.edstandards.com.au