Opinion: The wicked problem of education funding

Hands up who wants a good education?:  Every school-aged student deserves the chance to thrive within their own communities and beyond.
Hands up who wants a good education?: Every school-aged student deserves the chance to thrive within their own communities and beyond.

There’s an ancient curse masked as a compliment: “may you live in interesting times”, that could happily apply to the topic of education funding in the present day.

Most sensible people are left with no desire to wade into the heady morass that is the political side of influencing education policy. And then there are people like me.

My life, like that of many others, has been shaped by being brought up with a sense of making the best of what you have. So goes the nature of the families and communities that champion our public schools.

On the back of this is the celebration of what goes well and what has the potential to make a positive difference. In the current day, it’s the Prime Minister’s surprise announcement that the government is proposing a single funding model to replace the current 27 agreements crossing all sectors, and the plethora of additional models and special deals within them.

Like all policy declarations, the temptation is to focus on the detail rather than the intent behind the declared position. Perhaps now is the time to recognise that education funding is a truly wicked problem where there can be no absolute right or wrong answers, just better or worse outcomes.

The key to unlocking this is asking enough questions, and listening to the responses. If we are looking at equitable outcomes, just savour for the moment the concept of a single funding model that has the potential to be fair, simple and transparent with the tenet of creating – in the Prime Minister’s words - “great schools, great teachers, great outcomes”.

What has lead us to this point are legislated adjustments and special deals that, over the years, have corrupted the integrity of needs-based funding – and that’s just for the non-government sectors that operate less than 30 per cent of our schools. One could say that the grand experiment to richly reward private sector schools with direct government funding, over the last 20 years or so, has been an abject failure in improving educational outcomes.

What it has allowed is a massive expansion in the innate cost base of private sector schooling. A sector that has now come to want and expect additional government funding to subsidise the cost of maintaining and operating ever-growing campuses with facilities, and overt marketing campaigns, that public schools can only dream of.

In a bullish economy with parents who can afford a growing fee demand for a private education for their children there are no worries. However, we are now in a more bearish economy where considerations of price and value are at the forefront. There is also the increasing appreciation of the qualities and strengths of public education leading to burgeoning enrolments in public schools. With the resurgence of the fully inclusive public education system, private schools are facing new challenges.

The Quality Schools Initiative will allow a fresh start with the end in mind – a truly needs-based funding model that can strip away the subjective and unfair nature of the current arrangements and special deals. The cornerstone of this is the Gonski 2.0 review that gives the potential to establish a body of evidence based best practice led by a trusted champion of needs-based funding. A process that can give every school-aged student the chance to thrive within their own communities and beyond. Our proud nation, its families and their children deserve nothing less.

Phillip Spratt, president, Australian Council of State School Organisations