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How Catholic schools are failing the poor

'Catholic schools' by Chris JohnstonIn 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 Catholic schools. Their demographic shows that they have become cheap private schools and that lower socio-economic Catholic enrolments in them have plummeted.

Recent research by Michael Furtado shows that under a neoliberal funding policy Catholic schools are unable to match the services provided by government schools to meet poor children's needs.

Catholics do not operate comprehensive schools through which their students are exposed to the entire curriculum that is available in a government school. Their parent organisations are closely controlled by school providers, whose preoccupation is to ensure existing funding policy, even at the cost of locking low-income students out, other than as a matter of exceptional and charitable dispensation.

Such issues have been resolved elsewhere through various modes of integrating Catholic schools within the public sector, as in New Zealand since 1974 and in the UK from 1944. Those who control Catholic education in Australia have vigorously resisted this proposal as a threat to the ethos of Catholic schools.

Yet evidence from other countries does not support such a view: there has been no noticeable dilution of religious ethos where Catholic schools are fully funded by the state and there is no correlation between Catholic school attendance and Catholic faith practice in Australia.

As a result of the Catholic precedent, state aid to private schools has resulted in a class-differentiated school system, with poor children disproportionately enrolled in state schools. In effect, Catholic schools, intended first and foremost for the poor, have become the instrument through which millions of tax dollars are siphoned off public schools and given to the private sector.

The ALP is now committed to funding all schools, public and private, on the basis of the socio-economic status of their enrolled students as broken down by home address. This is an indelible indicator of private wealth or poverty. The funding dollar will flow to schools that enrol learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A golden opportunity faces the Rudd Government and the Church, concerned about the loss of poor students in Catholic schools, to offer an authentic choice to parents to access a broad range of equally accessible schools that are equally paid for by the state.

If the Catholic Church fails to engage Labor's 'education revolution' on this proposal, its commitment to the Gospel of social justice will be in ruins.

Ross FitzgeraldRoss Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Catholic University. He has authored 31 books. His latest, Under the Influence: A history of alcohol in Australia will be published soon.

Topic tags: ross fitzgerald, catholic schools, private schools, state schools, public funding, option for the poor



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Existing comments

This article is full of so many gratuitous assertions and tendentious inaccuracies, I rate it one of the worst published by Eureka Street. Catholic schools carry many non-fee paying, 'poor" students in among fee-paying clientele. The school ethos can also engender attitudes (and discipline based on Christian respect) which no amount of money can buy. Further the co-curriculum offers great opportunities for developing a genuine, non-political, social conscience.

The NZ system of Integrated schools, in which I have worked, is very good in making Catholic schools more accessible but the Rudd Government is not offering that. It would simply add too much extra costs to the public purse. Catholic schools are not imposed by the Catholic Church on parents: they exist because so many parents choose them for their children in preference to alternatives. What can be done politically to show more people that choice is the real issue.

Brother Bill Firman | 24 August 2009  

And the Jesuits are leading the charge ( pun intended) !!! In Adelaide, St Ignatius College, only 50+ years old compared to the so called established schools has raised its fees gradually to match those ot the three leading other century+ year old schools. It is located a long way away from the exclusive suburbs, on the fringe of the city where land was and still is cheap compared to the inner suburbs where the schooling of the establishment began.

However because is has catered for the sons and daughters of the high flying professional classes, it has now become exclusive for even middle class Catholics. Not that there is any bettereducation in religion and spirituality !!!

bygone | 24 August 2009  

It may be useful to look at the socio-economic changes amongst Catholics in Australia. It wouldn't surprise me if the schools are drawing from many who have risen up the economic ladder. Also there now is a large demand from non-Catholics for Catholic schools places - either because of the apparent 'discipline' of the sector or the view that it is a cheaper 'private' school option.

Trevor Sketcher | 24 August 2009  

The little evidence we have about why parents use Catholic schools suggests that the attraction has little to do with their catholicity. The upper middle class seem to be the main users for reasons that are more materialistic than spiritual.

The church continues to invest money and human rsources into schools that by most measurable standards are not carrying out their task as religious educators but, to a large extent, are replicating a secular system Meanwhile the many young Catholics in government schools are ignored.

The Catholic conscience is salved by the efforts of volunteers who teach RE in the state syetems. Unfortunately while such good people sontinue to do this the hierarchy will be happy to 'manage' the problem. With a little more good will and thought perhaps we could solve it.

terry oberg | 24 August 2009  

Thank you Brother Bill Firman for your accurate description of this article and intelligent response to its contents. Cheers also to Bygone.

barry nolan | 24 August 2009  

One has to agree with Brother Bill - 'so many gratuitous and tendentious inaccuracies', 'one of the worst published by Eureka Street'.
And one of the worst of those inaccuracies is surely the nonsense, now usually perpetrated by only the crassest bigots, that Catholic schools have become the 'instrument by which millions of tax dollars are siphoned off public schools and given to the private sector'.

First, no tax money is siphoned off - what evidence shows that the public sector gets less because the private sector gets some. And 'some' is the critical word. Surely Professor Fitzgerald knows some simple arithmetic - per student, the private sector receives only a fraction of the taxpayer money allocated to the public sector.

John R. Sabine | 24 August 2009  

While I was Director of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn in the 70's Professor Don Anderson (ANU) floated the notion that the Commonwealth should totally fund all non-government schools in the Australian Capital Territory. It was about the time that New Zealand was moving towards Interegrated schools.

As Ross Fitzgerald suggests this proposal was vigorously resisted even though I considered it worthy of consideration, having looked at the UK system and sent my financial manager to N.Z to study their plan.
The objections were many and varied and included the yet to be installed Archbishop of the day instructing me over the phone to object!

What a shame as the plan might have meant the beginning of an Australian wide Intergrated school system in due course.
Ross Fitzgerald has it right about the tunnel-visioned attitude of Auystralian Catholics in regard to this matter.

Peter J Moore | 24 August 2009  

I just hope that my boy can go to a Catholic school without busting our pocket, I want him to have the spiritual education state schools dont cater for and are there many Lower SES, like me, Catholics around anymore?

Rod Shearing | 24 August 2009  

Hello Ross, My response is in the Bill Firman corner. Your paragraph where you suggest Catholic schools do not offer comprehensive curriculum as do Government schools is misinformed and most unhelpful for any fair public debate. The secondary school of which I am principal has nearly 1600 students and is in the highest 5 per cent of Victorian schools for breadth of curriculum provision. Your charaterisation of the role of school boards is equally negative and simplistic. Discussion time given to the funding topic has been very sparse over the past 20 years. A more worthy topic may be why the poor are not obvious nor really welcomed in worshipping and Faith communities.

Tony O'Byrne | 24 August 2009  

Br Firman's dilemma is this: no social conscience can be nurtured without some reference to a Catholic education that cultivates a critical engagement with politics, otherwise we confine our good works to charitable acts, which, while good of themselves, leave unaltered the very structures that oppress and make demands of Christian charity alone, while leaving the greater responsibilities of justice and equity relatively unaddressed. As to the affordability of this proposal, he should look at needs-based funding based on the SES status of student home address - itself an infallible measure of wealth and poverty in Australia. The conditions are ripe for accessing Catholic school choice to the poor, who, according to the statistics, are incontrovertably locked out of them. It will then take dedicated teachers, who place student engagement in the curriculum and pedagogy above the need for respect and good order in the classroom, to act. For that to happen requires courage and imagination that only the Gospels and those charged with implementing them in the Catholic school funding policy context must provide.

Dr Michael Furtado | 24 August 2009  

If we are to continue funding Catholic schools, the ordinary Australian taxpayer has to be be prepared to fund schools operated by the so-called Church of Scientology, as well as those of other groups which arguably do not share the values we have come to regard as Australian. Bringing it home, however, while the issue of whether or not one shares the Eucharist each Sunday may not be the ultimate test of whether one has absorbed authentic Christian values from attendance at a Catholic school, I suggest it is a fair benchmark. If Catholic education "works", our churches must be overflowing with young people. Hello??.......

Peter Downie | 24 August 2009  

All my life I've been distressed by the sectarian & social bitterness stemming from school funding.

This problem would be solved if every child was given a voucher that could be used at any approved school of their choice. Schools with poorer students would need supplementation & schools with wealthier populations would be expected to contribute extra.
What is so wonderful about state schools? The children of millionaires attend state schools without rquirement to contribute extra.
Every child would be on an equal basis with a properly thought out voucher system. It wouldn't be easy but it can be done. It would have great advantages in reducing social class & sectarian tensions.

Why should parents be pushed into accepting whatever the state cares to offer them? A good education is a basic right of every child.

There is nothing sacred about its provision directly by a state business enterprise.

Geoffrey Long. | 24 August 2009  

I agree that given unlimited funds, we could provide education for rich people (virtual reality simulators for helicopters and bulldozers and medical operations etc) ... the possibilities are endless.

But the greatest virtual reality machine in the universe, is probably still the human brain.

I'm sure we could have good schools where costs were extremely low. (The whole of classical greek literature can be stored on a USB device costing $1).

So your argument that schools are failing the poor because they are not spending a lot of money, does not convince me.

The real problem with education is that classrooms are being micro-managed, at a distance, by administrators.

This is the true 1984-style horror. Lack of money has nothing to do with the problem.

cronos | 24 August 2009  

am I correct when I say that $2 million raised in donations for a school project say swimming pool is then matched by a government grant of that amount. It is far easier for "richer schools" to raise money than for poorer schools.

Anne | 24 August 2009  

I'm astonished that poor children are lost to Catholic schools. That's not the case in this lower middle-class to poor area of Melbourne where State schools are nowhere near capacity
and the local parish school has to reject prep children every year!

Bill Barry | 24 August 2009  

This really is a pretty awful article even assuming the author is tongue in cheek. Children from relatively poorer Catholic families have always attended government schools rather than Catholic schools because they were cheaper. All schools, governement and nongovernment, are funded from varying mixtures of public and private sources and the additional resources that schools in poorer areas draw is in recognition of the relatively harder task that they face in educating concentrations of disadvantaged students.

No State or Federal government in recent years has shown the slightest sign of changing the basis of the bargain through which nongovernment and government schools are funded. Nongovernment schools and their administrators are equally adamant about retaining the present system, now well established and widely supported.

What concerns me more is the impoverished educational experience that many small, philosophically and religiously based schools offer to their students. These are the most rapidly growing sector after home schools and equally closed to scrutiny.

Helen Praetz | 24 August 2009  

There is an assumption in the article and the responses that Catholic education is a service FOR the Church. As it was explained to me by a Marist Brother I greatly admire, it should be seen as a service OF the Church. If viewed in that way, the debate might be different.

And I wish someone would question the assumption of the fairness of the SES method of funding. It is one of those easy ways out that has been made possible by computerisation and can yield skewed versions of reality.

Frank | 24 August 2009  

This article is nothing short of bizarre. Professor Fitzgerald describes the current funding policy as "neoliberal", meant as a term of abuse. Yet the key feature of the current Commonwealth funding policy for non-government schools - funding according to home address - was introduced by the Howard Government, and is now held up by the professor as a key plank of the Rudd Government's education revolution! The difference is that the current government extends that priniciple to government schools as well as non-government schools. Out-Howarding Howard. The professor also seems to have a short memory. How could he forget that, when in opposition, Ms Gillard attacked the socio-economic status funding policy (the one he now praises) as grossly unfair because, compared the system it replaced (which funded schools based on their fees and other income) it delivered funding increases to a number of elite schools whose SES scores were dragged down by the fact that wealthy people living in relatively down-market areas were able to send their children to those wealthy schools. In other words, home address was NOT an "indelible indicator" (Fitzgerald version of Dr Furtado's "infallible measure") of wealth and poverty. I'm with you, Br Bill. I'll declare my interest - as a former Chief Executive of the National Catholic Education Commission.

David de Carvalho | 24 August 2009  

I find this article timely. As both a committed state school teacher, and a committed Catholic I agree with the sentiments of Ross Fitzgerald.

Peter Burger | 24 August 2009  

Having been a Josephite sister for many years I would like to comment on the situation of our schools before the days of state aid. On Friday nights we sat at a table together and counted the sixpences the POOR families contributed for 'free education'.

It was with this money the sisters lived. There was NO "church" financial support for the sisters and often there was nothing contributed to the expenses of the schools.The annual fete is what kept the schools and the sisters alive. In my opinion without state aid the schools would have folded years ago. The POOR were the ones making the schools possible.THEY paid (when possible)

It is well worth noting that the sisters did not receive a SALARY but rather were given a STIPEND which was much lower than the salary of the other staff members.

I believe that Mary McKillop's spirit 'never see an evil without trying to remedy it' is alive and well as so many respond to the various pains of FAMILY today. A child is unable to learn if the family pain is impacting deeply. (relationship trauma: separated parents: financial trauma etc etc )

Julie O' Gorman | 25 August 2009  

As a "Professorial Fellow of the Australian Catholic University", just where is Ross Fitzgerald coming from in this article? A strange attack on Catholic Education from within? And what of this odd statement, "Catholics do not operate comprehensive schools"? Like any school, Catholic Schools are subject to review and appraisal from Government authorities. They just can't, because they are Catholic, "leave things out"!

Peter Kelaher | 25 August 2009  

The assertion that 'Catholic school providers, whose preoccupation is to ensure existing funding policy, even at the cost of locking low income students out', is outrageous. Equally wrong is the claim that Catholic schools are unable to match the services provided by government schools to meet poor children's needs.
- Stephen Elder, Director of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Feature Letter

Stephen Elder | 26 August 2009  

two points: is there any research into parents' opinions? my granddaughters go to a Catholic school now because of bullying in the local state school (they live in a small country town)
second: yes their education at that school is very basic - no library, no art, no music, no money... but the teachers are excellent examples of kindness and compassion.

barbara | 28 August 2009  

As an Old Boy of 'Joeys'(Sydney,I recently received a glossy publication on the latest 'achievements' of the College - with the usual call for money to upgrade what is by any standards, world class facilities. I taught for 30 years in the Catholic system.Facilities/resources were barely adequate.I ventured into the Government system -facilities still basic!

I learnt was that the "Rich Schools "grow richer because the clientele have the money to provide them.However NO WAY could I send my boy to Joey's. The fees were awesome!He attended the local Marist - at great cost to us, but not bankrupting!

The former clientele of the Catholic system were the poor Catholic Irish. Today it is those who can afford to send their children to fee charging Catholic schools. Catholics have risen up the social ladder since Mary MacKillop's time still poor Catholics can no longer get a foot in the Catholic classroom.It is nonsense to say that poor Catholics can attend our schools- Bursaries were rare.Those handed out usually went to a good sports person!

I strongly identify with Julie O'Gorman's response. I have enormous admiration for the men and women who lived in such horrific conditions.

Gavin | 28 August 2009  

Attrition rates to private school enrolment from the public sector have grown by more than 10% in a decade. This isn’t just leakage; it’s a bloodbath and refusing to accept the conditions which historically have integrated Catholic systemic schools within a diverse public sector constitutes an attack on the common good. The conditions are ripe for integration simply because of changing contexts and shifts in the discourse of social inclusion from redistribution to equal opportunity.

Several CEOs, including Stephen Elder's predecessor, and Cardinal Pell have expressed concerns about the exclusion of the poor from Catholic schools. That Fitzgerald, from within the ACU, has hit the mark is evident from fierce opposition by conservative gatekeepers of the left and right from within and outside the Catholic Church, some of whom, while committed to charitable arrangements for the poor, are determined to uphold the status quo at the cost of negotiating a new deal to reverse the inexorable trend towards Catholic schooling for the rich. That they thereby confirm the worst fears of the AEU, which totally opposes funding Catholic schools, is a measure of their policy illiteracy and disservice to the Kingdom and the Church.

Michael Furtado | 29 August 2009  

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