The flak has been flying over education policy with both sides of politics ducking out of the way – and we haven’t even heard Kevin Rudd’s policy speech commitments.

The Prime Minister seized on comments by Labor’s Eden-Monaro candidate Mike Kelly on local radio about private school funding to suggest a return to a “Mark Latham hit list”.

Labor nervous nellies forced him into making a “clarification”, but all he did was state Labor’s long term position – that schools funding should be needs based.

A Rudd government would do what every government does when it takes office – carry out a review and look at the funding formulas. This would probably recommend a return to a needs-based system. But it won’t come straight away.

Kevin Rudd wasn’t going to fall into the Latham trap. Labor committed early in the campaign to stability of funding for the next three years to neutralise any chance of a wedge and not to frighten any skittish independent school horses (especially the Catholic education system, the largest low-cost alternative to the public system – Rudd got Cardinal Pell’s support after all).

This was a risk averse, steady-as-she-goes, me too campaign tactic, not directed at the Labor faithful, but at the self-proclaimed “battlers” whose love of middle class welfare Howard is feeding with his education rebates.

These have got the PM into trouble. The headmaster of the Kings School, the school at the centre of Latham list rows, Tim Hawkes, has told The Australian the rebate should be means tested.

“The bottom line is I think the money should be spent where it’s needed,” Hawkes said . “I have sympathy with it being means-tested. I am really quite comfortable with that because I am generally a supporter of needs-based funding.”

The rebate policy has also been attacked by the free market Centre for Independent Studies think tank. “We already have one of the most complicated tax systems in the Western world,” its social research director Peter Saunders told The Australian. “Now every parent with a tax accountant is going to claim $800-a-year for each secondary school child.”

CIS director Greg Lindsay told guests at its anniversary dinner last year – including the Prime Minister: “Just because government can do something doesn’t mean that it should. Just because we can afford to do something doesn’t mean that the money should be spent.” He warned “the lure of the free lunch is always there.”

Voters tend to be hungry for a feed, but they tend to know when the free lunch menu looks a little too good to be believed. Or when it’s too rich. Perhaps Rudd will have some simpler fare to whet their appetites today.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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