Schools funding: beyond the dog’s breakfast?

The funding of schools has for over fourty years been a source of strident debate and sectarian conflict in Australia, the subject of a seemingly inexorable blame-game fought between the Federal and State Governments, and a fight for resources waged by mostly well-meaning advocates from both the government and non-government school sectors. It is a conflict inflamed by the reality that the education of Australia’s children – the people who will eventually forge the nation’s future – is what is at stake. Terrorism, climate change and crime might be the topics du jour that tend to be splashed across the front pages and in the commercial news, but it is arguably the national response to the challenges facing our education system in an increasingly globalised world that can make the most substantive difference to Australian society in the coming decades.

It is in this context that Julia Gillard, as the former Minister for Education for the Rudd Government, announced the commencement of a Review of Funding for Schooling back in April 2010, with the aim of defining an approach for funding schools beyond 2013. The terms of reference for the review are fairly broadly-defined, and are available here [PDF]. This review is scheduled to report before the end of 2011, and public submissions to the review close at the end of this month, on Thursday, 31st March 2011. You can make a submission to the review online here.

As the most significant public review of schools funding in Australia undertaken since the epoch-defining Schools in Australia report delivered by the Whitlam Government’s Australian Schools Commission Interim Committee in 1973, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the results of this review really matter. The review process represents a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the Federal Government to shake off the policy squibbing of recent decades and embark on a program of serious educational funding reform.

Such reform, if it is to be serious, must deliver a needs-based funding model that has equity at its heart, and it must also consider the prospect of constitutional change. The “elegant” silence of Australia’s creaking Constitution regarding who is explicitly responsible for doing what has laid the foundation for the dog’s breakfast of schools funding arrangements that we enjoy today. The Federal Government finds itself by convention responsible for the majority funding of non-government schools, whilst providing GST revenue to the State Governments to majority fund public schools across the country. It is a system ripe for political manipulation, fostering an environment in which anyone with a gripe about schools can blame anyone for anything, and everyone can, in a manner of speaking, still be right.

Timed as they are, the recommendations of the review panel seem likely to prove a formative influence on Gillard Government’s re-election platform heading towards 2013. Collectively we can only hope that the review panel proves bold enough to make fair and far-reaching recommendations, but certainly as individuals we can all do our bit by having our say based on our frustrations and our personal experiences with the nation’s schools before the end of the month.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.