The Prime Minister’s “Gonski 2.0” announcement yesterday was a dramatic attempt to end the “school funding wars” that have been a series of losing battles for the Coalition since 2013: Turnbull has (again) increased Commonwealth school funding commitments and extended them through to 2027, as well as commissioning the architect of Labor’s overhaul of school funding, David Gonski, to conduct another funding review.

The package will, according to the government, mean an “additional” $18.6 billion for schools between 2018 and 2027, although it appears funding will be backloaded, as the government says there will only be an extra $2.2 billion of funding over the first four years, which will appear in next week’s budget papers. The sources of the funding have not been identified.

David Gonski will also be tasked with another review”to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools”, which is intended to “provide advice on how this extra Commonwealth funding should be used by Australian schools to improve student achievement and school performance”. Gonski led a seminal review of school funding that reported to the Gillard government in 2012, recommending a consistent level of funding per student across all schools, weighted in favour of disadvantaged students.

Yesterday the Prime Minister has committed to lift Commonwealth funding to 20% of funding for government schools, which was the level recommended by Gonski; Labor inherited a Commonwealth funding level under 10% from the Howard government and steadily lifted it; it is now over 17%.

That represents a remarkable turnaround from early last year, when Turnbull speculated that the Commonwealth could eliminate all government school funding and simply fund private schools, if the states accepted his proposal for a state income tax. That idea was abandoned within hours in the face of a massive backlash.

The funding package is, in the words of the Prime Minister, “expected” to include funding cuts for 24 of the most overresourced schools on the eastern seaboard, as well as the continuation of slower funding growth for other wealthy schools, meaning around 350 well-heeled private schools will eventually see real funding cuts or slower growth than other schools. Under the Gillard government’s Gonski-based school funding package, no schools were left worse off. Labor feared that any wealthy private schools that lost funding under its reform package would be the subject of a repeat of the Coalition’s campaign against Mark Latham-era Labor’s “hit list” of schools. Since then even Liberals have admitted that some of Australia’s wealthiest schools should not be receiving the high level of Commonwealth funding they enjoy. 

The government increased schools funding in the 2016 budget in an effort to escape the constant criticism levelled at it by Labor that it had abandoned the Gonski funding reforms in favour its preferred funding recipient, private schools. Until then, the Liberal line had been that more funding would not lead to improvements in Australia’s declining (in relative terms) international education performance. However, the Liberals remain damaged by Tony Abbott’s handling of the issue: Abbott promised to abide by Labor’s school funding package before the 2013 election and then immediately sought to cut funding once elected, before backflipping multiple times. Whether the literal appropriation of Gonski by Turnbull is enough to end the “school funding wars”, however, remains to be seen. The Liberals started the wars back in the Howard years, to great success, but more recently they have turned into a consistent loser for conservatives.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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