It was the Sunday Telegraph that broke the news that some of the agreements underpinning the Labor government’s education reform package — known to many as Gonski — had not been finalised.

Is Prime Minister Tony Abbott “walking away” from the agreements, as the opposition is suggesting? Is it “back to the drawing board”,  as federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said?

Not really.

Given the constitutional division of responsibilities — states manage schools and provide over 75% of all school funding, mostly directed to public schools — the Commonwealth’s National Plan for School Improvement depended upon agreements with each state and territory, as well as with the Catholic and independent school sectors. These were negotiated over many months, between April and August. NSW, SA, ACT, Tasmania, Victoria, and private school sectors all committed to the reforms and the additional funding, much of which they would contribute from their own coffers. The rest of the funding — from the Commonwealth — had many strings attached. 

The Coalition went to the election promising voters they were on a “unity ticket” with Labor when it came to school funding and would offer the “the same funding envelope” for the first four years. However, given that half the funding was to flow to schools in the fifth and sixth year, the Coalition only effectively promised to deliver half as much funding as Labor pledged. This was after years of  Pyne stating additional money was not required and the system did not require major reform — rebuking the evidence of the Gonski review, and repeated statements from public and private school systems that funding overhaul was needed.

Pyne is now claiming that some of these legal agreements were not finalised, and that he will “renegotiate all the funding deals” to make the reforms implementable and fairer. (The legality of this is highly questionable, given these written and signed agreements are all — or most — legally binding agreements. And the states are not recalcitrant administrative entities of the Commonwealth, but democratically elected, sovereign governments.)

“Pyne has waxed lyrical about treating the states with respect … he should practice what he preaches.”

The bodies in question — Tasmania, Victoria and the Catholic sector are refuting Pyne’s claim — have stated that firm agreements are in place. Tasmania is even threatening legal action if the Commonwealth backs away from the written agreement they have. The conservative signatories (NSW and Victoria) have emphatically confirmed that binding deals are in place and that the Commonwealth cannot unilaterally turn away from it. They have vowed to fight for them.

The Victorian government explicitly told its schools and citizens last month that it was committed to full implementation of the reforms and the full $12.2 billion increase over six years, pledging it would “work with the new Commonwealth government to ensure this agreement and the promised additional funding is honoured beyond the current budget estimates period to 2019″. In NSW, implementation has already begun.

Ross Fox, executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission, likewise says a deal was reached, and that he was not concerned that their $1.6 billion of funding was at risk — although he hoped to streamline some of the reporting requirements before signing the dotted line for the final time.

Another obstacle for Pyne is that the increased funding for school systems that signed up to Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement have been legislated for the period 2014-2019. The complexity of this legislation and a hostile Senate means that the Abbott government cannot just back away from these legislative commitments, and certainly cannot prevent the first additional funds from flowing before the start of the new school year.

Contrary to Pyne’s claim, the individual flexible bilateral agreements negotiated separately with each school system (as opposed to a uniform, national agreement) are not a shambles — they’re exactly what David Gonksi recommended. In Gonski’s own words, the existing state and private school system authorities “are better placed than the Australian government to determine the most effective allocation of available resources in their particular circumstances”. This is because their local knowledge and administrative capacity is greater than that of the Commonwealth. In fact, most elements of the Better Schools plan were already in place, or scheduled for introduction at the state level to varying degrees.

When it comes to innovation in schooling, states are the engine room of the nation. They should be allowed to get on with the job without a distant government waving carrots and sticks at them. Pyne has waxed lyrical about treating the states with respect and ending the “command and control” from Canberra. He should practise what he preaches.

*Bronwyn Hinz is completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne on how federalism shapes Australian school funding reforms. She has worked for the Education Foundation and Per Capita and written a book on the development of multicultural policy (ASP 2009)