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Motion: Funding for Schools

Mehreen Faruqi 16 Sep 2019

I move:

That the Australian Education Amendment (2019 Measures No. 1) Regulations 2019, made under the Australian Education Act 2013, be disallowed [F2019L00558].

The Australian Education Amendment (2019 Measures No. 1) would establish a choice and affordability slush fund for private schools. Commencing in 2020, the fund would provide an estimated $1.2 billion to private schools over the 10 years to 2029 and barely any accountability or criteria for how this money will be spent. This is public money that should be going to our grossly underfunded public schools, not private schools. If ever we had a perfect symbol of education and inequality in Australia then surely this has to be it: a big pile of cash for the Catholic and independent school sector announced a year ago to buy their silence in the election. This slush fund will only serve to widen the already extreme gap between public and private schools in Australia, fuelling further inequities introduced by Labor and Liberal governments in special deal after special deal.

Here's how bad things are: by 2023, 99 per cent of public schools will be stuck below the national resource standard while 99 per cent of private schools will be at or above it. This will leave public schools $22.7 billion below the minimum amount of funding they need to deliver quality education for our children. This is despite public schools educating the majority of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But how much money does this fund have for public schools? Not one cent. We're in this situation because both Labor and the Liberals are guilty of making grubby deals with the private school sector to buy their silence and compliance with education reform.

Analysis by the ABC has revealed that the percentage of private schools receiving more public funding than similar public schools was 58 per cent in 2009. After a decade of special deals, that figure is now a whopping 85 per cent. Over the last decade, non-government school funding per student has grown 2.7 times faster than public school funding per student. Things are now so unequal that while 99 per cent of public schools struggle on without even the basic level of funding they need, Department of Education data shows some private schools on the North Shore of Sydney receive more than double the amount of federal funding that they are entitled to. How much money does this fund have for public schools? Not one cent. And that's not to mention the facilities and infrastructure. The federal government's capital fund for schools is dedicated entirely to private schools. Over the last two years they spent more than $311 million on 314 private schools. Between 2013 and 2017 Australia's four richest schools spent more on new facilities and renovations than the poorest 1,800 schools combined. Meanwhile, public school students and teachers continue to sweat it out in demountable classrooms waiting years to do basic repair work while private schools build luxury facilities like indoor sport centres, Olympic sized pools or an auditorium with an adjustable orchestra pit.

No example makes the inhumanity of the government's approach to capital funding clearer than Alekarenge School, which is 350 kilometres north of Alice Springs. The entire school is made up of temporary classrooms that will be 50 years old next year. For half a century the school has had to survive with substandard facilities, which have now deteriorated to a horrifying extent. Students at Alekarenge are endangered by exposed live wires hanging in their classroom. Condemned buildings remain on school grounds, riddled with broken asbestos, because they are supposedly too expensive to remove. With no funding for fencing, teachers have been forced to build a cage for students to eat lunch in so they're not attacked by wild dogs. This is not some scene from a dystopian novel. It's the standard this government thinks is acceptable for public school students in the 21st century while it throws money at private schools.

One consequence of criminal underfunding is that 93 per cent of public school teachers dip into their own pocket to buy stationery and classroom equipment. Nearly half of them buy library resources and textbooks to make up for the lack of government funding. But how much money does this fund have for public schools? Not one cent.

To this gross pile of inequality the government has added this $1.2 billion private school slush fund. It might just be the latest in a long line of special deals, but it's particularly stunning for how obscenely unnecessary it is. The dirty deal struck last September is exactly what happens when a government doesn't have the mettle to stand up to the cashed-up private school lobby. The slush fund wasn't even on the table during months of negotiations over reforming the method of measuring parents' incomes. The Guardian reported that it wasn't until Prime Minister Scott Morrison plotted his way to the prime ministership and exiled Senator Birmingham from the education ministry that the idea of doling out cash to buy the private school sector's silence was entertained. But entertained it was, and in a big way. When he announced the deal, Minister Tehan had the hide to describe it as sector-blind, despite it not containing one cent for public schools.

Even setting the injustice aside, the choice and affordability slush fund is just a masterclass in terrible policy development. The government haven't even been able to land on a halfway plausible excuse for handing the money over. They've talked about affordability of private schools, but analysis from the Grattan Institute has made it clear that this funding is all about keeping Catholic school fees down in wealthy areas. Even if propping up private schools in lower socioeconomic areas was a greater priority than supporting desperately underfunded government schools, the analysis shows that the $1.2 billion is ten times more than what would be needed to do it. This is the furthest thing from the principle of needs based funding everyone in this place claims to subscribe to. How on earth can anyone in the Labor or Liberal parties justify subsidising private school fees while public schools cry out for basic funding?

At other times the Prime Minister has banged on about choice. Well, Prime Minister, let's talk about choice. Choice in education would be best supported by ensuring that every student has the option of a well-funded, world-class public education in their local school. Without that choice we fail generation after generation of students and families who rely on universal free public education to get their start in life.

Next, and most absurdly, the government suggested the money might go to drought-affected areas, as if only private schools in areas of drought would need support and underfunded public schools in those areas would just be left high and extremely dry.

And here's the kicker: despite their weasel words on how the fund might be used, there are still no guidelines as to how it will be governed and no indication that the government will do anything to compel private schools to spend the funds in a particular way. The cash will simply be handed to Catholic and independent school authorities to dispense as they see fit. There are no rules and no criteria.

In response to my questioning in estimates, the department had no idea how the enormous figure of $1.2 billion was actually arrived at. There was no reasonable model or formula behind this number; there was only craven self-interest and a Liberal-National government desperate to throw out enough money to appease the private school sector. I've pursued the government on this in estimates and during question time, and they've done nothing but stonewall, completely unable to justify this absurd expense. Even if this were the right use of government funds, which it absolutely is not, there is no transparency with this money and no indication that the government will hold the private school sector to account. We have no real idea what these schools will spend the money on or how much will go to subsidising the fees of parents who could afford to pay more, while public schools cry out for basics like air-conditioned classrooms and an end to demountables. For that reason alone, the fund should be disallowed.

The Greens are proudly the party of public education. We are unapologetic in our advocacy for a well-resourced, world-class public education system. We will always stand against grubby special deals. The Greens are the only party with a plan to fully fund every single public school to meet the educational needs of its students, no matter their postcode or their parents' bank balance. We are the only party committed to delivering at least $300 million in infrastructure funding to public schools so they can build the learning and teaching facilities they need. And we are the only party committed to reversing the deals that keep private schools overfunded at the expense of our public schools. Why? For the Greens it's simple. With public money, the 2.5 million children in public schools have to come first.

I'm glad to say that we are not alone in calling this fund what it is. The Australian Education Union described it as 'a cynical attempt by the Morrison government to buy votes at the next election at the expense of students in our public schools'. The Grattan Institute called for it to be scrapped. And Labor, even with their own rich history of special deals for private schools, were able to say it looked very much like a slush fund—before they rolled over just in time for the election. It's thoroughly disappointing but, I'm afraid to say, not surprising to see that Labor will be rejecting this opportunity to stand with students, teachers and parents struggling in public schools around the country. They really can't have it both ways on this. Labor can't welcome billions for already overfunded private schools, as they did last year, and then just cross their fingers that money for public schools might somehow appear.

It's clear that the Greens are the real opposition in this place and the real defenders of public education in parliament. Today we have the opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to say no to special deals and the inequality that they create. We have the chance to restore a little sanity to the school funding policy and begin the process of unwinding the years of unfair advantage private schools have enjoyed under Labor and Liberal governments. I do urge my crossbench colleagues and those in the Labor Party not just to talk a big game on supporting public education but to join the Greens and support this motion. I commend the motion to the Senate.


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