As the Morrison government continues to battle with states over whether schools should open, and if so whether Australians should let their children attend, a disparity has arisen which threatens Catholic and independent schools and their students.
Years of pushing choice in kindergarten to year 12 education, especially by conservative governments, has meant growth in both the Catholic school system — increasingly used by non-Catholics — and the independent sector.
The Catholic system makes up about 18% of the K-12 school population, and independent schools 15%.
Independent schools are predominantly faith-based; significant networks are run by the Anglican, Uniting, Seventh Day Adventist and Presbyterian churches, as well as various Jewish, Muslim, Baptist and evangelical Christian schools.
There is also a large group of non-denominational independent secular schools and niche players such as Montessori and Steiner.
At non-profit schools that spend virtually everything they receive each year on staff, utilities and maintenance, there is not a lot of fat to cut if parents cannot pay fees when they lose their jobs. They will be forced to cut staff. They want certainty about government funding next year so that doesn’t have to happen.
Payments to independent and Catholic schools from federal and state governments are set on the so-called annual census date of August. But if parents remove their children before then because they are financially stressed, the schools will lose not only fees paid by parents, but also Commonwealth and possibly state and territory funding for the whole year.
And this is beginning to happen as job losses hit families who stretch themselves to pay fees, often at low-fee-paying regional and suburban private schools.
Most of them are effectively excluded from the JobKeeper allowance because, unlike charities, they have to demonstrate a 30% reduction in turnover
So a gap has emerged between low-fee-paying independent schools and their more wealthy counterparts.
For instance, the Nambucca Valley Christian Community School’s funding page shows it received $14,700 for each student from state and federal governments in 2018 and about $3000 a student from parents and other private sources — that is, less than 20% of its income.
Another low- to middle-SES independent school is the Al Faisal College in Auburn, Sydney. It received $12,100 for each student in government funding in 2018 and $2609 from parents and other private sources, so its government/private percentage split is 82/18.
On the other hand, a wealthy private school such as Cranbrook School in Sydney raised more than $38,000 each student from parents and other private sources in 2018, and received about $3700 from both levels of government. So more than 90% of its income came from private sources.
If its private revenue falls by 30%, Cranbrook, a non-profit charity (only not-for-profit schools can receive government funding), would be eligible for the JobKeeper allowance to help it keep its staff.
A 30% revenue fall is far more likely for schools such as Cranbrook because most of their revenue comes from parents, and parents may well vote with their feet as things get tight.
The story is different for Nambucca Valley Christian Community School and Al-Faisal as funding for both — most of which is from government — will be maintained, so any drop in revenue will be only from the small proportion provided by parents and other private sources.
Unlike Cranbrook, there is no way they will be able to access JobKeeper because their revenue cannot fall by 30%.
“[Nambucca Valley Christian Community School] fully supports the government’s stated position and directives that schools have an obligation to remain open,” its principal, Jeff Allen, told Crikey.
“To know that the operation of a school could have this funding certainty with no less money being asked for from the Australian government would help preserve and sustain the enrolment bases of schools all across Australia.
“We need certainty so we can open our schools when the government want us to in May.
“First, we need to be assessed in relation to a count of students pre the COVID-19 pandemic — either late January or February 2020 — to provide certainty. [Second], while failing revenues may trigger eligibility for JobKeeper for some high-fee schools, it is unlikely to help us at all.”
At a time of great instability and upheavals, it would seem counterproductive to allow independent schools to cut back on staff or even close, forcing students to shift to state schools unprepared to take on the numbers.
It is worth noting that changing the census date to the pre-COVID start of the academic year would not add to the total of students or the total spend by the government on regular payments.
The Association of Independent Schools wants the government to bring forward the next of its three-part payments to independent schools from October to June. The government pays 50% of the year’s total based on student/class numbers in February, 25% in June and 25% in October.
Allowing independent schools to apply for the JobKeeper payment if, like charities, they suffer a 15% loss will save jobs and provide certainty. Shifting the census date to the start of the school year will cost the government nothing but will ensure schools remain open.
It looks like a no-brainer.