One word encapsulates the 2008-09 federal budget as it relates to schools – boring. It simply makes official the funding announcements made before the election last year.

Not that this is surprising. Nobody really thought that this budget would have anything interesting to offer for schools. That was pretty clear from the lack of pre-budget speculation and chatter in school education circles. But boring isn’t always bad. When it comes to other people’s money, boring trumps extravagant and ill-considered spending every time.

The budget for school education is based on a couple of big themes and several smaller ones. The big ticket items are computers and vocational education. These are worth $400 million and $233 million respectively in 2008-09, and together comprise 80% of the spending on federal school programs for that year.

Programs aimed at improving literacy and numeracy will get $95 million in 2008-09, and the remainder of spending is divided between capital grants for shared school facilities, Asian languages promotion, the National Curriculum Board, a national schools assessment and data centre, mentoring programs, a schools-business linkage program, and funding for Orthodox Jewish Schools. The last of these seems a little out of the box, but the budget papers explain that it is to address “anomalies in their funding arrangements” due to their “unique circumstances and special needs”.

There are several standout features. The first is that there is next to nothing here for primary schools. The computers and trade centres are aimed squarely at secondary schools as are many of the other programs. The second is that the government has been keen to emphasise that this funding is available to all schools, public and non-government, with the neediest schools served first. Finally, most of the funding is to purchase infrastructure. It has been said before, but it is worth saying again, teachers and teaching have been completely neglected.

Although the focus has been on the items above, they form only a small part of the federal government’s budget for schools. There has been a bit of shuffling and re-naming, and now funding falls into two categories – National Partnership Payments (NPPs) and Specific Purpose Payments (SPPs). The programs identified above are NPPs, worth a total of $773 million in 2008-09. The bulk of schools funding, however, is through SPPs.

In 2008-09, SPPs for schools are worth $10 billion, and include the federal government’s funding for non-government schools through the current quadrennial funding agreement. When the pie is cut to show the share allocated to the public and non-government school sectors, it is easy to see why the government has not been promoting this aspect of the budget. Support for non-government schools is estimated at $6.5 billion while the public schools’ share is an estimated $3.5 billion.

The quadrennial funding agreement expires this year and discussions are under way. In effect, the new agreement will be much more important for schools than the federal budget. The government is under pressure to review its recurrent funding mechanisms for schools and has given some indication that this is on the cards. If so, chances are the negotiations will be anything but boring.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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