It’s clear, judging by both the outcome of the Gonski review and the government’s immediate dispatch of it to the purgatory of COAG, that Labor has lost any appetite for making good the damage inflicted by the Howard government’s SES school funding model, which continues to this day to allocate millions of dollars to Australia’s wealthiest schools.

That model was the Howard government at its most ideological, based on John Howard’s personal vision of a taxpayer-funded transformation of Australians  into his ideal of Liberal voters — nuclear families, shareholders, privately schooled, using private health insurance. The conservative Catholic school system was a particular favourite of that government, serving as a low-income distraction from the direction of extraordinary levels of funding to Australia’s richest schools (and the rapid increase in that funding).

Eventually that vision morphed into a simpler mass vote-buying exercise, as Howard’s social engineering gave way to pork-barrelling on an extraordinary scale that left it with a structural budget deficit and a profound sense of entitlement.

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The best that the government is likely to do is freeze the outrageous funding of the likes of Geelong Grammar ($4 million a year) and direct additional funding to low-performing, low-SES schools across both sectors. Funding for even élite private schools will continue to be based on the current SES framework until a new assessment tool is developed that will form the basis of how the non-private contribution component of each per-student amount is determined for each school.

And of course the government has repeatedly promised that no school will lose any funding, terrified as it is of handing the opposition the sort of weapon they deployed against Mark Latham in 2004.

Fear of the label “class war” thus becomes a tool for entrenching class-based privilege, as usual.

The Gonski model is actually a straightforward, common sense one — look at the best-performing schools and use them as the basis for a per-student funding model applied across all sectors, load funding to reflect the needs of different schools (particularly around disabilities), determine what’s fair for schools already receiving private contributions whether large or small, and the Commonwealth pays 30%. That’s a simplified version of the model, but it’s essentially sound.

The government’s real difficulties will lie in convincing the states to get on board what will in effect be a national funding model. The additional $5 billion might end up being the sort of carrot the government will need to carry the states with it — and where will it get that sort of money from?

Meantime, a timid government will grope its way forward by consulting furiously and, if no agreement with the different sectors is forthcoming, that the COAG swamp will trap the reforms until beyond the next election, regardless of the proposed 2014 start date.

The government has already been rolled by the miners and the clubs industry. And politically they’re nothing compared to private schools.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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