Graham Young over on Ambit Gambit has a post about Labor’s education policy release that trots out the usual kneejerk conservative slur against Labor: Latham’s policy is based on “envy”. But unlike most such defences of existing privilege, Graham actually argues his case.
Update – Chris Sheil also posts on Labor’s education policy, while John Quiggin launches a pre-emptive strike on health policy in advance of Labor’s detailed policy release. Both are well worth reading.
(initial post (cont.) Graham Young argues:
For years private schools have been funded on the basis of more or less self-reported need. This was obviously open to manipulation. A couple of years ago the federal government changed this, calculating need on the basis of the income profiles of families sending their children to private schools. Without using the actual tax returns of families they estimated incomes on the basis of the socio-demographic of the areas from which they drew students. (This can be done fairly precisely on the basis of the 200 or so houses making up a census collector district).
As a result of this something was crystallised. Many of the people sending their children to the wealthier private schools were actually poorer than many of those sending their children to the needier private schools, and judged on this basis some of the poorer schools were over-paid and the richer schools under-paid.
Leaving aside the potential for gross inaccuracy and rorting inherent in a formula that attempts to guess the wealth of parents based on census districts, surely we first need to ask a fundamental question. What are we trying to achieve with government funding of schools (whether it’s federal aid to private or government schools)? The answer to that question largely determines the appropriate funding model.
My answer is that we’re trying to foster equality of opportunity, so that all kids, irrespective of where they live or how much their parents earn or what sacrifices those parents are able or willing to make, get the chance of a decent education at a school with good facilities, services, resources and teachers. Once you arrive at that answer it becomes clear that the funding model should ensure that all schools achieve at least a base reasonable level of facilities, services and so. The funding model must be based on the standard of facilities, services etc of the school, not some half-baked system that attempts to estimate the parents’ income by use of proxy measures and irrespective of the facilities the school already possesses.
If parents then want to make financial sacrifices to send their kids to a school with even better facilities, services etc, then good luck to them. They’re entitled to make that choice, but at their own expense. Government only has a certain amount of revenue available, and it should spend it where it’s most needed to bring facilities and services at all schools up to a common standard of excellence. That has nothing to do with “envy” and everything to do with basic notions of fairness and equality of opportunity. In fact, the Headmaster of The King’s School seems to agree with this proposition, even if Graham Young doesn’t (via Robert Corr):
There is no question that we at the King’s school enjoy the most wonderful resources, and we don’t pretend otherwise. And there’s no way that I’m going to argue that we need this money in the sense of because there are, I’ve got colleagues and friends in the state sector and other schools which are very poorly resourced, and they desperately need more money, but the point that I make is, that I think that it is proper and fair for the Government to give some support to the King’s school, because we already save the Government about over $12-million a year, and therefore some small recognition, even if it’s relatively tokenistic would be I think appropriate.
However, as Rob Corr goes on to point out, Labor’s policy does provide “some small recognition” to all schools including Kings and Scotch College, in the form of a base level of funding per student that all of them receive. But those with lesser levels of facilities and resources receive more, and that’s as it should be.
That isn’t to say Labor’s policy is optimally fair by any means. As Dave Ricardo pointed out in the comment box of the previous post, the richest Jewish schools in Melbourne have beene exempted from the cuts inflicted on King’s and Scotch College, almost certainly because including them would have imperilled Michael Danby’s marginal seat of Port Melbourne.
And, as Graham Young observed in his post, the Catholic schools appear to have done a deal with Labor that results in their receiving a bigger slice of the federal pie than Anglican, other Protestant and Muslim schools, even though the latter have experienced much larger increases in enrolments over the last few years and are at least equally needy in terms of facilities etc.
In summary, Labor’s policy is a political document, but political in a significantly fairer way than the Coalition’s existing policy. The Howard government calculatedly redefined the concept of “need” when it came into office so as to deliver more money to wealthy private schools at the expense of their poorer colleagues. Labor will redress that inequity and put the focus back on the needs of schools where it belongs. But in doing so it seems to be giving special deals to some private schools for reasons of political expediency quite unrelated to any objective comparative assessment of school need. Labor’s policy is superior but far from perfect.