Listen: Stephen O’Doherty in conversation with Christian Schools Australia’s Mark Spencer
The right to choose a faith-based school education is a key human right and an important aspect of religious freedom in Australia. The provision of government funding to partially support that choice sets Australia apart from many other western nations.
But the pathway from small capital grants for science laboratories and libraries in the 1970’s to today’s system of needs-based, sector-blind funding has been paved with division and bitter argument. Like the culture wars, the war over school funding has often seen clashes of ideology and politics. For some it crosses over into arguments about the role of religion in society. Thankfully those days are, for the most part, behind us.
How will mooted changes to one of the elements of school funding be received?
The Gonski funding principles
With major parties now in broad agreement about the key principles of funding the angst-ridden debates of the past are largely over. Key reforms recommended by an eminent committee head by David Gonski, introduced during the Gillard and Rudd Governments, were broadly accepted by Coalition Governments that followed. While there’s still disagreement at the margins by and large this approach looks set to stay.
Under the needs-based, sector-blind funding principles of Gonski schools receive funding in two categories: base funding and loadings.
Loadings are provided to fund extra resources needed to overcome disability and disadvantage, including factors such as low socio-economic status, idigeneity and remoteness. The loadings follow the child. In other words, loadings are equivalent regardless of whether the child is in a government or non-government school. Non-government schools consider this an important aspect of equity.
However the approach to base funding differs between sectors. In the non-government sector base funding is reduced by a calculation that relates to capacity to pay. In other words the system expects the community of Catholic and Independent Schools to financially contribute through school fees.
The policy principle here, accepted by most in the school education sector, is that non-government schools serving communities with a lower income will receive more support while those serving higher income parents will receive less support. In practice, high-fee independent schools receive less funding than low-fee schools.
Government schools are not affected by the capacity-to-pay calculation and receive all of their base funding allocation.
How capacity to pay is calculated
As a legacy of an older funding system capacity to pay currently is based on average income information drawn from the Commonwealth Census. The problem has been that the census only provides averaged data across census collection districts.
Critics have pointed out that there is no way to know whether the families enrolled at a particular non-government school are above, below or on the average income for their census collection district. The uncertainty has only fed other fractious debates over non-government school funding.
Attempts to improve the calculation by gathering exact parental income data have been fraught. Privacy concerns and the lack of a means of validating information have always been raised as objections.
However the National School Resourcing Board has now concluded that data-sharing protocols between government departments have reached the stage where individual parental income data, suitably anonymised, can now be safely used to calculate an exact capacity-to-pay index.
The response of Government and the education lobby can be described as cautious acceptance and the system could be introduced in 2020.
The new system will certainly be more transparent. Arguments over whether schools enrol more needy families from richer areas, sometimes used as a reason to justify anomalies, will now have a factual resolution.
Just how school fees in Catholic and Independent Schools might be affected will not be known until financial modelling is completed, and that will take some time. After decades of an ideological divide over school funding methodology it seems no one wants to see more revolution. Cautious evolution is the order of the day, and perhaps that is a good thing.
What does it all mean?
On Open House I discussed the proposal with a former colleague Mark Spencer, the Executive Officer for Policy, Governance and Staff Relations at Christian Schools Australia.
CSA represents the interests of the influential sector of largely low-middle fee Christian schools.
Mark has a detailed knowledge of the twists and turns of funding, having been involved in all major debates for almost three decades.
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