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How Catholic schools are failing the poor

  • 24 August 2009
In a secular country like Australia it is ironic that Catholic schools are mainly funded by the state. Even in America, where religion pervades politics, state aid to religious schools is constitutionally forbidden. Yet the fact remains that most Catholic school provision in English-speaking countries is fully publicly funded.

Australian Catholic school funding is a complex work in progress. Although socially liberal and committed to serve a public function, Australian Catholic schools are virtually uniquely private sector schools, drawing from the Commonwealth and states funds without which they would be unsustainable.

The remainder of their resources comes from low-fee imposts, with the exception of a minority of schools owned by Catholic religious orders which have a demographic profile similar to non-Catholic schools and charge their clients substantially more.

This exceptional arrangement, through which an enormous private sector system is predominantly publicly funded, has fuelled the staking of claims for funding other private schools.

Australia now has the biggest private school sector in the world. How did this happen? In the colonial era all schools were equally funded, according to denominational affiliation. At a time before universally available public education became the norm, such schools also reflected the differentiated class interests of society: in effect schools for the rich and others or none for the poor.

Mary McKillop's missionary zeal in founding schools for the poor reflects a time, long passed, in which only the wealthier non-Catholic Churches managed to maintain their schools without state aid. The main exception to this rule was the Catholic Church, which imported thousands of religious women and men to operate a school system relatively accessible to all.

Since the Second World War, a decline in religious vocations, coupled with a dramatic increase in Australia's population, brought pressure on Australian political parties to overturn the ban on state aid to private schools.

Leading the charge was the Catholic Church, which, through the Democratic Labor Party, drove a split in the ALP to influence its supporters to cast their second preferences for the Coalition parties. These had a more conciliatory attitude to the funding of private schools.

The Whitlam Government (1972–1975) broke the stranglehold of the Coalition on this question by agreeing to fund all non-government schools on the basis of need, resolving a sectarian and ideological divide in Australian society and politics lasting over a century.

Since the mid-1980s funding deregulation has imposed a different set of problems on