Schools should be publicly funded, free and open to all: researchers

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All Australian schools should be fully publicly funded, free of charge and open to all students, according to a bold new school funding model proposed by two education experts.

In their report, Choice and Fairness, a Common Framework for all Australian Schools, researchers Chris Bonnor and Tom Greenwell say the funding overhaul would cost taxpayers an extra $8 billion a year but boost academic equity and achievement.

All Australian schools should be fully funded by taxpayers, researchers say.Credit: Penny Stephens

Private schools could continue to be independently owned and operated and could prioritise enrolments for families from faith backgrounds. But, the report says, private schools that want to keep charging tuition fees or to exclude certain students would not receive any taxpayer funding at all.

“The reality is that our current hybrid public/private framework is not fit for purpose,” Bonnor and Greenwell, both of whom also wrote Waiting for Gonski: How Australia Failed its Schools, argue in the report.

“We won’t solve Australia’s declining education performance and equity if we don’t first put in place a new equitable framework within which we fund and regulate our schools.”

The researchers estimate it would cost taxpayers an extra $2 billion a year to fully fund private schools, covering recurrent funding and capital expenditure.

The biggest cost, at $6.5 billion a year, would be funding each state school to its schooling resource standard – an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ needs.

Australia is well off this target, with predictions most jurisdictions would only reach 90 per cent of their needs-based funding allocation by 2030.

“Doing both things – bringing public schools up to the schooling resource standard and fully publicly funding non-government schools – would involve substantial additional expenditure,” the report says.

“But it would still only amount to around half of the annual cost of the Stage 3 tax cuts, which will flow overwhelmingly to high-income earners.”

Bonnor said even if all state schools were fully funded, there would still be “enrolment segregation” created by the ability of schools to exclude students through price or the academic tests used by select-entry state schools.

“Full funding to the schooling resources standard is widely considered to be the panacea, but it’s only half of the solution.”

The report comes as concerns mount that record taxpayer funding of schools is not boosting results or reducing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, the latter of which tend to enrol in state schools.

Disadvantaged year 9 students are five years behind in reading ability and four years behind in maths compared with their advantaged peers, the Grattan Institute’s analysis of 2022 NAPLAN results found.

The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria expressed an open mind to the report’s funding proposal.

“The government funding our schools receive is greatly valued. However, any proposal that could help take further financial pressure off families certainly warrants consideration,” it said.

Independent Schools Victoria did not respond to a request for comment.

Chris Bonnor says Australia needs a new, equitable framework for funding and regulating schools.

Dr Emma Rowe, a senior lecturer in education at Deakin University, said the report’s ideas had merit but were unlikely to be adopted.

“My prediction – it won’t get up,” she said. “The private schools lobby holds significant power and influence.”

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare would not comment on whether the government was open to the report’s proposals but said it was working towards getting every school on a path to full funding.

An Andrews government spokesman said it had invested a record $26.8 billion in schools since coming to office and increased recurrent spending for government school students by more than 40 per cent – the highest rate in the country.

But it has yet to commit to its full share of funding to state schools, leaving a yearly $500 million shortfall that it argues the Commonwealth should pay.

Typically, the Commonwealth funds 20 per cent of state schools and state governments fund the other 80 per cent. The Victorian government has only committed to providing 75 per cent of the funding to state schools, leaving a 5 per cent funding gap.

Under the Gonski “needs-based” funding model, the federal government has committed to spending $318.9 billion on schools from 2018 to 2029.

The Gonski model has been criticised for giving state schools less funding than they need to meet students’ educational needs while over-funding some private schools.

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