The furphies behind Pyne's class war

by Dr. David Zyngier

Geelong Grammar and other private schools have received over $12 million dollars in government funding, per annum.
Geelong Grammar and other private schools receive over $12 million dollars annually in government funding.

The recommendations of the recent Commission of Audit in relation to education fly in the face of and totally reject the most extensive and significant review of school funding for 40 years – the Gonski Review and the Gonski-lite Better Schools Plan. It has accepted fully and blindly the unwarranted and un-factual claims made by The Grattan Institute and the Centre for Independent Studies that despite increases in government funding for school education our students’ international comparative results have declined.  The CoA concluded that:

Increasing funding does not necessarily equate to better student outcomes. Between 2000 and 2012, despite real growth in government funding of over 3.8 per cent per year, Australian student results in international tests declined.

It is not clear to the Commission that the projected step-up of growth in Commonwealth schools funding over the next decade has been sufficiently justified. While the Government has locked in funding agreements for the next four years, new arrangements should apply from 2018 onward. The amount of ‘per-student’ funding in 2017 should be maintained and then indexed by an appropriate measure to reflect reasonable inflation in school costs.
It has again reiterated the furphy repeated ad nauseaum by minister Pyne that while education funding has increased 44% in the last decade, education standards have declined has been used by politicians of all sides. But the facts are that apart from the 2008-09 spending that helped save Australia’s economy from meltdown, according to World Bank figures, Australia’s spend on education as a proportion of GDP has declined from 4.9% in 1999 to 4.4% in 2011.
Only 71% of Australian government spending goes to public schools. The majority of the increase in government school funding over the past decade has gone to private schools. Since 2010, more than A$5 billion has been removed from public education in Queensland, NSW and Victoria alone while funding for private education has been maintained.
Significantly, according to the OECD Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose from around $3.50 for each dollar spent on public schools, to around $5 per dollar since 1997. In 2009, the Commonwealth provided 74% of all government net recurrent funding for the Catholic sector and 73% in the independent sector. Canberra now gives more money to private schools than it does to universities: more than $36 billion in federal funds has gone to non-government schools in the period 2009-2013.
The CoA asserts that:

The per-student rate of funding that drives the model is not based on a detailed analysis of the cost of delivering education and may not represent its efficient price.

In one short sentence it dismissed two years of review led by an expert education panel led by businessman David Gonski that took thousands of submissions from all around Australia.
Without dis-aggregating government funding between private and public education such claims are nonsensical.  Under the Australian Constitution, schooling is a residual responsibility of the states as it isn’t listed as a Commonwealth power under section 51. States and territories provide almost 70% of all government funding for schools, of which 90% is rightly directed to public schools, given the sector’s responsibility for universal education access and its disproportionate share of disadvantaged students. The commonwealth also provides funding for all school sectors, but directs most of its 30% of the funding pie to non-government schools.
While government funding for school education has increased, 27% of all government funds now flow to private schools. Government spending on private schools increased faster in the past decade than for public schools-private schools on average get $1.2 million a year more funding from all sources than public schools. Governments spent an average of $5.45 million per public school and $3.8 million per private school. But government money makes up only 57% of the total income private schools raise each year, with the rest coming from fees and other fund-raising efforts. That means private schools get an average total income of $6.67 million. Government spending per public school student increased by about 2.4 per cent a year between 2007/08 and 2011/12 while private school student spending increased by about 3.4 per cent a year.  Spending on private schools grew higher than inflation, while spending on public schools was below inflation. In 2012, nearly 85 per cent of all indigenous students and almost three-quarters of all students with a disability attended public schools. Since 2001 federal funding for Geelong College increased by 389 per cent, Geelong Grammar (315 per cent), and Haileybury College (359 per cent) for example. All elite independent schools have double resources of average government school. The wealthiest schools and families in Australia are now being subsidised to the tune of $3000 – $5000 per secondary student. There is no justification for providing millions in government funding to schools that are the preserve of wealthy. It means less funding is available for schools serving low-income families, indigenous students and students with disabilities.
The CoA is however correct when it states that:
In terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of school funding, what matters most is how schools and classrooms are run. These factors are likely to have a greater impact on student outcomes than spending alone.
What goes on IN and HOW the classroom is configured is critical. However the current policy advice on the relationship between class size and students’ academic performance is based on the work of Jensen at the Grattan Institute and Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies rely on flawed US research that smaller classes produce little or no improvement to student performance who want to create greater reliance on cut-price and de-regulated charter schools, which take public money while pushing market choice as a driver of better outcomes. They do this by arguing that under-performing schools should be closed and their teachers sacked, generally stating that poor marks are the result of anything except funding levels. One of these researchers has been brought into US courtrooms many times, typically to argue against school funding proposals.
At the end of a 2011 case in which he was a central witness, the judge’s 189-page decision rejected his arguments, saying; “Dr. Hanushek’s analysis that there is not much relationship… between spending and achievement contradicts testimony and documentary evidence from dozens of well-respected educators… [it] defies logic, and is statistically flawed.”
New research challenges these findings, on the basis of his review of 112 papers on the educational impact of class size, published 1979-2014. These papers cover education in a range of countries including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England and other parts of Europe. The review identified a number of studies which found that smaller class sizes significantly improve students’ academic performance in the first four years of school, particularly with regard to students disadvantaged by their SES, ethnicity or language background.
Still, this thinking created to manage one of the world’s most mediocre education systems has made it to Australia, a country for which a few good decisions could see it move to the top of the schooling pile.
Additional funds as planned for and agreed to as part of the Better Schools Plan are critical to have the very best teachers of literacy and numeracy experts working with disadvantaged children to bridge the enormous gap between the lowest and highest achievers in education in our country. Unless this problem is addressed our international academic outcomes will continue to slip. As Finland found if you focus on equity of provision then quality outcomes are produced.
For six years the Coalition has repeated that the Howard government’s model for school funding – the so-called SES (Socio-Economic Status) model was working.
They said the schools were getting the funding they needed and as education minister Pyne states, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
This made the school funding reforms, unnecessary. It was, Pyne said, “all feathers and no meat”, “unworkable and grotesquely expensive”.
Kevin Donnelly currently reviewing the National Curriculum also agrees with the CoA and rejects the need to adequately fund disadvantaged children:
With its misguided emphasis on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and its discrimination against private schools, the Gonski education reform needed to be reviewed.
The biggest danger to public education will be a rejection of the new funding formula based on student need as agreed by the states and territories with the previous government and a return to the discredited SES funding model. This is the model they have always supported and if reinstated, it will continue to privilege the wealthiest and most elite private schools at the expense of the working class and the poor.
If the CoA was serious in its need to save money from the education budget they would have been well advised to suggest that governments stop funding private schools as Chile has just done! Australia has become the most privatised education system in the world with almost 40% of our high school students attending private schools. Elite private schools like Geelong Grammar have been the recipients of more than $12 million per year – surely that money is not needed for another rowing shed or equestrian centre!
This article was originally published here.