A landmark report into Australian education that calls for an overhaul in education funding was greeted with a lukewarm reception by the government.

The Gonski review, written by Sydney businessman David Gonski, calls for increased funding for school areas of disadvantage, noting that poor and indigenous students are more likely to suffer poor educational outcomes. It warned that Australian school standards are slipping compared to global standards.

An extra $5 billion per year of funding would need to be allocated to implement the Gonski recommendations. Other recommendations include a requirement for non-government schools to receive a minimum 20-25% of each student’s funding from the government and for parents to be “wealth tested” to establish how much government support is needed.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has long declared education her biggest political interest, didn’t embrace the report’s reforms wholeheartedly. The $5 billion price tag — and need for working with the states, which traditionally look after education — seemed to be the biggest problems. “There is a challenge in here for both the federal government and for state governments,” said Gillard. “We need to make sure that any new funding model is sustainable over time and fits within government budgets, that we can make the right choices for Australian schools.

This is sensible reform, but the government isn’t strong enough to implement it, said Bernard Keane in Crikey:

“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.”

Jack Keating, a professiorial fellow at Melbourne University, agrees. He calls the Gonski report a “a well-researched, astute and, in several ways, radical document” in The Age, but notes how hard it will be to get consensus between state and federal:

“The economic and political cycles suggest that the next is at least a decade away. If these cycles follow their historical patterns they are likely to coincide with a deepening crisis in the government school sector.

A continued drift of student enrolments from government to private schools will deepen concentrations of educational disadvantage. By then the states and territories may realise they need to embrace the types of reforms to school funding and federal-state relations that Gonski has proposed.”

It’s the cost that has Gillard and Education Minister Peter Garrett concerned, writes Paul Kelly in The Australian:

“There is one big question: is the design fundable?

The caution of Julia Gillard and School Education Minister Peter Garrett suggests the national government has severe doubts. Yes, they are delighted with the report, but they refuse to endorse its design and seem alarmed at the $5bn price tag from 2014.

Gonski, however, advocates “incentives” to lock in the states over a 12-year deal. This means that in negotiation he wants the national government to offer to fund more than its current 30 per cent portion. It is a critical point. But this depends on the state of the national budget running into 2014 when the deal begins.”

“Wealth testing” of parents who send their children to private schools has The Daily Telegraph concerned. As it writes in its editorial:

“The aim of any meaningful reforms should be to raise the standards of weaker-performing schools, not to reduce the standards of peak schools.

As well, we are not talking here about a straightforward zero-sum equation.

It should be possible to boost the outcomes for struggling schools without drawing from resources aimed elsewhere.

The review isn’t completely wrong – the suggested involvement of philanthropic donors across all schools is particularly intriguing but it does seem to place an undue emphasis on lessening the incentive of parents to find and fund the best schools for their children.

That said, the review is a starting point. Let’s talk about it.”

Meanwhile, leadership rumours continue to swirl. Yesterday Gillard said she was not planning on calling a ballot and Kevin Rudd denied there was a challenge on. Stay tuned.

Peter Fray

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