The 2011 Gonski Review is now six years old, yet school funding is still a mess. The 2013 Education Act was a step forward but not a solution; in a rare double act, it is both too expensive and fails to provide enough money to the most underfunded schools.
Labor’s education plan taken to the 2016 federal election would have added megabucks, but the “no school will lose a dollar” pledge meant true needs-based funding would not be achieved for another 100 years or more.
Gonski 2.0 is the best plan yet. It offers more consistency across the different states and sectors, ending the patchwork of bilateral agreements now in place. And it better aligns commonwealth funding to student need.
Under the 2013 Act, under- or over-funded schools make only incremental progress towards their target level of funding, called their Schooling Resource Standard (or SRS). Under Labor’s 2016 policy, under-funded schools would quickly be topped-up, but nothing would be done to bring over-funded schools back to target. By contrast, Gonski 2.0 would lead to consistent commonwealth funding for all schools, relative to their individual targets, by 2027.
Gonski 2.0 is good, but it can and should be better. In our submission to the senate inquiry into the legislation, Grattan Institute argues for three improvements.
First, we call for all schools to get the commonwealth share of their target funding four years quicker than Gonski 2.0. It proposes a 10-year timeframe, with most of the spending promised beyond the budget forward estimates. This is too long, and creates a risk that much of the money won’t eventuate.
A more aggressive, six-year transition could be funded by bringing growth in school funding more into line with costs, given current low inflation and low wages growth (ie moving to a floating rate of indexation from 2018).
This would free-up billions of dollars in savings that could be channelled to the most disadvantaged schools – underfunded schools would get the money they need much more quickly, while overfunded schools would get slower funding growth.
Second, we recommend more be done to ensure state governments fulfil their responsibility to help close the needs-based funding gap. Under Gonski 2.0, the Commonwealth requires only that the states maintain per-student funding at 2017 levels. This won’t be enough. If state government contributions are held at this minimum rate, government schools will fall short of needs-based funding everywhere except WA and the ACT. And some independent schools will continue to be over-funded for decades.
State and territory governments should be expected to deliver funding alongside the commonwealth so that all schools receive at least 90 or 95% of their target. If states want to invest more in their schools, they should not receive less commonwealth funding (which is what would happen today). But if they want to invest less, the commonwealth should reduce its funding to that state by a proportionate amount.
Third, we urge the commonwealth to establish a National Schools Resourcing Body, to keep school funding at arms-length from politics and to guarantee greater transparency and accountability. This independent body would track and report on changes to funding, so voters could see whether governments were shirking their responsibilities to close the needs-based funding gap.
This is particularly important given that Gonski 2.0 cements the idea of “majority funders” for each sector: the states are the majority funders of government schools (80%), and the Commonwealth is the majority funder of non-government schools (80%). The new body should be charged with ensuring neither tier of government unduly favours “its” school sector.
Gonski 2.0 is not perfect, but it is a big step in the right direction. Australia cannot keep waiting for a “perfect” school-funding model. Gonski 2.0 should be improved then embraced by all sides of politics – because this opportunity to end the funding wars may not come twice.
Pete Goss is School Education Program Director and Julie Sonnemann is School Education Fellow at the Grattan Institute.