Recently I attended a Melbourne Institute forum concerning the future outlook for school funding, against the background of the current commonwealth government review of school funding methodologies. One of the speakers at the forum was president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU), Mary Bluett, a known advocate for the expansion of the government schooling sector.
Her presentation (see powerpoint summary here) was, I found, a curious missive railing against the growth of not?for?profit Catholic and independent schools – which she claimed was some part of a ‘neo?liberal’ conspiracy to bring down the government schooling system – and extolling the supposed virtues of ‘universal public education’ (whatever that might mean; more on that in a moment).
Sprinkle in some statistical spin that risks misleading an audience (e.g., why only have the commonwealth share of non?government school funding in one chart, but then growth in state and commonwealth non?government school funding the next?) and – voila! – served is a half?baked narrative as to how governments schools which already enjoy the lion’s share of resourcing are allegedly going without.
Bluett did not provide a definition of what universal public education might entail, but it might be plausible to assume that what she and the AEU have in mind are a suite of policies designed to manufacture a reversal of the twenty years?plus enrolment drift of the total student share to Catholic and independent schools.
In a table presented in her slides, Bluett showed that the share of students in government schools nationally had fallen from 78 per cent to 66 per cent from 1980 to 2009. For ease of comparison with financial figures publicly available, in 2008 there were 2.3 million government school students (66 per cent share) and 1.2 million non?government school students (34 per cent share) (both FTE basis).
Given that it costs the taxpayer less on average to educate a child in a non?government school (2007?08: c’wealth $4,767 recurrent funding per FTE student; state $1,840) than in a government school (2007-08: c’wealth $1,092; state $11,546), a drift back to government schools will impose net additional fiscal burdens upon the long?suffering taxpayer (in other words you, dear reader, and me).
Putting aside interjurisdictional differences in school demographics and funding models, as well as the question of private funding sources, it is possible to provide a rough estimate of the additional strains that might be imposed on taxpayers due to a student share for government schools that was found when The Clash were at the peak of their powers.
Assume that the education system was shocked by policy or other changes that effected an instantaneous increase in government school enrolments, based on 2008 enrolments, to a 78 per cent share. That would’ve meant a jump in government school enrolments to 2.7 million students, while non?government school enrolments fell to about 740,000.
Essentially, taxpayers would be relieved of recurrent funding for non?government schools to the tune of $2.8 billion. However, the significant increase in government school enrolments would have led to an increase in commonwealth and state funding of about $5.4 billion.
The net AEU ‘tax?price’ tag under this scenario would have been $2.6 billion. In other words, an extra two?thousand, six?hundred?million dollars would need to be forked from the nation’s taxpayers – during a period of increasing cost of living pressures – to finance the further consolidation of heavily unionised, taxpayer financed government schools.
This analysis excludes the fiscal costs associated with new capital works requirements as more classrooms are needed to house additional government school students. Also bear in mind the fact that most capital works in the non?governmental schooling system are financed directly by parents.
Of course, one could work on the basis of a longer transition towards a government school share of 78 per cent of students against the background of projected future growth in the numbers of young people.
When I undertook some back?of?the?envelope calculations using ABS population projections, and assuming that the increase in per student capita funding by governments would track the observed annual increase in the primary Australian Government School Recurrent Cost (AGSRC) index in recent years, my eyes glazed over as I observed the massive implicit increase in future tax liabilities needed to satisfy the AEU’s objective.
Of course, by the same token we would anticipate to have a much larger economy into the future. Certainly if Australia is able to reduce the size of government and encourage the greater use of market forces in resource allocation this would be guaranteed. However, the prospect for ever?rising tax burdens to bankroll a rising relative share of government school students would be a real and painful one for future average Australians.
The AEU and their friends essentially have a two?pronged strategy to dilute the cost effective, educationally valuable proposition that is non?government schooling.
The first is to lobby governments to chip away at the distinguishing features of non?government schools that provide them with a competitive advantage over the more inflexible government schools – the clamour towards a national curriculum is just the thin edge of the wedge here, with many public education advocates also recommending European-style systems whereby non?government schools must widely mimic the regulatory standards for government schools.
The second is to agitate for ‘resources standard’ style funding (such as that propounded formerly by the ALP under Mark Latham, and presently by Melbourne?based education academic Jack Keating). This form of funding risks ripping funds out of schools that already meet a politically?determined level of fee and other income, acting also as a potential deterrent to additional parental human capital investment in their children.
Of course, some of the more ‘innovative’ within the public education lobby like to combine the two strategies into one plan to completely residualise alternatives to government schooling.
There is no question that the AEU is a highly organised lobby that has the sympathetic ear of the Gillard government in the context of the current funding review. Developments in this policy space should be at least scrutinised very closely if taxpayers are to have any hope of avoiding the union’s higher?tax agenda.