No debate polarises Australians more than the battle over the funding of private and public schools, but there is little doubt parties on both sides are committed to paying for our kids to get faith-based education.

According to statistics, each year more parents are choosing non-government schools over the more secular state system. The ABS says the split between the two is 65% and 35% in favour of government education, but that figure is steadily shifting further towards independent schools.

Recent studies suggest 90% of kids getting a non-government education are doing so in religious schools. That means people like Bill Daniels, from the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Therese Temby from the National Catholic Education Commission and Stephen O’Doherty from Christian Schools Australia, are having a bigger say in Canberra.

Daniels, Temby and O’Doherty represent thousands of schools, including the exclusive institutions that made up Mark Latham’s infamous “hit list” in 2004 — the last serious effort any leader has made to take money away from elite independent schools.

Since then, both parties have made it abundantly clear non-government schools will not be worse off. Many have put that down to the effectiveness of the private schools lobby, particularly in mobilising parents, politicians and principals to speak out.

Now, with a federal election looming and the debate over the outcomes of the Gonski review into education funding ongoing, the fight between public and private is set to escalate.

Earlier this year, Gillard even told the Independent Schools Council of Australia that “every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase under our plan”. Tony Abbott has made it clear the Coalition will stick up for private schools.

In a letter to Australian Education Union members this year, president Angelo Gavrielatos wrote that the independent sector had launched an attack in the wake of Gonski on the “fundamental democratic principle” of free, secular, public education for every child. He wrote:

“The private schools lobby is certain to escalate its political efforts in the interest of maintaining its position of relative privilege when it comes to federal funding. Members should brace themselves for more outrage, and at times hysterical statements, from this lobby.”

Independent schools reject this, saying the system would collapse without them and that they provide a better service for less money. That also means the inclusion of religious studies, much of which is paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The make-up of the non-government school sector is a varied one. Catholic schools have traditionally drawn a large share of students, as well as Anglican schools, but there have also been recent rises in Jewish, Islamic and fundamentalist Christian schools.

And then there’s the power of the students themselves. Most of Australia’s oldest (and richest) schools, the ones that attract the sons and daughters of our most powerful people, are religious.

Anglican independent school Geelong Grammar, which has produced old boys such as Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch, receives 18% of its funding from government according to MySchool. The Uniting Church’s Knox Grammar School, educators of Nick Minchin and Mark Scott, gets 12%. We don’t anticipate they’ll be seeing cuts any time soon.

Peter Fray

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