EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Kirby attacks state aid to non-government schools
, December 22, 2012
In his speech on receiving a public education award last week, former High Court judge Michael Kirby attacked non-government schools for being over-funded and in an interview with The Australian said: “In providing for private and religious schools, governments have stolen from public schools.”
What Kirby has ignored is that parents of non-government school students, in addition to paying school fees, also pay taxes to support state schools. If anybody can be accused of stealing, it should be the government for charging parents for an education system they don’t use and refusing to refund the difference when they pay to educate their children in non-government schools.
No student in a non-government school receives the same level of government funding as a state school student. State schools, on average, receive $14,300 a student in state and commonwealth recurrent funding; non-government schools receive only $7,400.
The existing funding model is also based on need. Wealthier non-government schools such as Melbourne Grammar and Sydney’s The King’s School receive only about 13 per cent of what government schools receive.
Governments schools are funded for buildings and infrastructure; Catholic and independent schools are not.
The fact 34 per cent of students attend Catholic and independent schools saves governments about $6 billion a year — the funding that would be needed if those students enrolled in the state system.
Those who argue that Australia should be condemned for spending a “higher proportion of public money on private schools than any other developed country” ignore that this is because Australia has one of the highest percentages of students enrolled in non-government schools.
When Kirby argues, “We must recapture the secular element in Australia’s national life”, he implies there is no place for teaching about Christianity in state schools.
Yet the belief that state-sponsored education should be secular does not mean there is no place for teaching about Christianity in subjects such as history, art, music and literature. Rather, the intention of those responsible for introducing public education in the late 1880s appears to have been to restrict sectarian conflict by not endorsing one religion over another.
Australia may be a secular society, in the sense that we do not have a state-sanctioned religion, but our culture, history and political and legal institutions can be understood only in the context of the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
Kirby characterises faith-based schools as homophobic and elitist, and suggests they do not deserve government support when he argues that no school “should make a gay student feel alien” and no school “should exalt racist or classist superiority”.
Kirby ignores research in Australia, Canada and the US that demonstrates faith-based schools, especially Catholic schools, are successful at promoting relationships based on reciprocity and a commitment to the common good.
One Australian survey, investigating students’ experience of racism, concludes: “Those students who attend a Catholic school are 1.7 times less likely to report experiences of racism than students attending government schools.”
A Canadian study released this year investigating the impact of faith-based and secular schools on social capital concludes that “the claim that religious and other independent schools do not prepare their students to contribute positively to Canada’s multicultural society is unfounded”.
Kirby seeks to revisit the bitter state-aid debates that erupted during the 1960s. Hopefully, those responsible for any funding model post-2013 won’t listen and will act on the assumption that every student, regardless of the school they attend, deserves proper government support.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science! (available from News Weekly Books). The above article first appeared in The Australian, December 7, 2012.