On school funding and tax reform

Barbara Preston writes: Re. “Tax reform sinks into the swamp of health and education” (Monday). There appears to be a lack of historical knowledge from the Coalition regarding schools funding and its effects. In 1975 (after the conservative Senate had amended the Whitlam government’s bill) Commonwealth grants per student were more for public schools than private schools: $786 compared with $519 (2011 dollar values). In 2011 the average grants to public schools were much less than average grants for private schools –$2248 and $6339 respectively (2011 dollar values).

According to the 1973 Interim Committee for the Schools Commission:

“There is a point beyond which it is not possible to consider policies relating to the private sector without taking into account their possible effects on the public sector whose strength and representativeness should not be diluted … As public aid for nongovernment schools rises, the possibility and even the inevitability of a changed relationship between government and nongovernment schooling presents itself.”  [Karmel Report, para 2.13]

The developments since the 1970s should not surprise us:

  1. After an enrolment share of around 80% for almost a century until the late 1970s, the public sector’s share is now 65%.
  2. In the mid 1980s the overall SES mixes in public and private schools were similar. By 2011 this had changed: in the public sector there were twice as many Low SES (bottom third family income) as High SES (top third family income) students, and the reverse in the private sector as a whole, with twice as many high SES as low SES students.
  3. In 1970 the public sector had slightly better student-to-teacher ratios. By 2015 this had changed. The ratio in the public sector was 14.2 students to each full-time equivalent teacher (and 35.2 students for each FTE non-teaching staff member), while in the private sector there were 13.4 students to each FTE teacher (and 29.4 students to each FTE non-teaching staff member).
  4. Thus we should not be surprised by the Grattan Institute’s findings (and those of many others) that learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students are wide and widening,  more so in Australia than in almost any other OECD country.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the Karmel Committee did not recommend the solution favoured by most other countries confronted in the 1960s and 1970s by seriously underfunded Catholic schools: that of offering integration into the public system (with maintenance of some distinctive character), and leaving those private schools that choose not to integrate without any public financial support. The very top schooling systems, such as Finland’s, have no private schools and are based on local, comprehensive public schools.

Full Gonski funding is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for a fair and high quality schooling system and an agile and innovative society and economy.

Bruce Graham writes: I disagree with Bernard Keane’s analysis.  Although I usually avoid grand conspiracy theories, I think Malcolm is a clever man, so I doubt complete incompetence.  Time will tell.

The Australian public would be happy with increased taxes on tax minimising multinationals like Google and Apple. They would support better alignment of tax incentives for superannuation, and there is a strong case for negative gearing/capital gains tax reforms on real estate.  The Coalition could avoid negative electoral effects with each of these, because it would get bipartisan support.  But it does not want to do these things. It is (and knows it is) out of step with the Australian community. So a distraction that makes everything somebody else’s fault cuts the losses. From this viewpoint, the aim of the income tax proposal always was to fail. It provides cover for insufficiencies in funding of popular programs, and distracts from the alternative means by which tax could be raised. Now, if Malcolm proposed helping the states tax capital gains on the family home? That would be news.

On rate cuts

Russell Bancroft writes: Re. “What a rate cut would mean in an election year” (yesterday). You assume that any cut in the official RBA interest rate would be passed on to consumers. Given the track record of our banks there is no guarantee that any cut will be passed on.

Jobs for mates

Doug Melville writes: Re. “Put an end to Ruddmentum” (yesterday). What is extremely worrying is how many appointments are effectively in the gift of the current government, and how long lasting the effects are, despite the apparent limited term.

The initial appointment may well be limited to three or four years, but the senior level public servants within agencies and authorities are there for the long haul. With SES salary packages starting at upwards of $200,000 they make a nice form of patronage for fellow-travellers, donors, failed candidates and assorted party hacks. It’s not the temporary appointee we should be looking at, but the power they have to ensure their mates get to call the shots, long after the original appointee is gone.

Typical examples might be where a new appointment is made to the head of a statutory authority, who then proceeds to “move-on” senior staff members, replacing them with “captain’s picks”. Or selection committees being given a very specific brief to ensure the “right” kind of person gets the nod. Never overtly, but a gentle reminder that they need a “team player” — someone who fits with the culture. The ‘Good Ol’ Boy’(and occasionally ‘Girl’) network in Canberra would put Huey Long to shame.

Peter Fray

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