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Public schools' charity case


Australian money (bills)Should public schools go out looking for private philanthropy? The question was sharply posed by the release earlier in the week of a survey of giving to and receiving by schools. It found, unsurprisingly, that the lion's share goes to non-government schools, the independents particularly.

The survey, sponsored by LLEAP (Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy), is just one sign that the push is on to get public schools into the philanthropic game. Another is Gonski, who devoted an entire chapter to the question of whether and how private effort — in kind as well as in cash — can be got to where need is greatest.

Gonski listed a range of philanthropic activities as well as agencies set up by or with the support of governments to encourage them, and to get business involved. The report recommended that the federal government set up a new body — itself to be philanthropic — to help schools find their way into this new and unfamiliar landscape.

This is all small beer by comparison with developments in the US and, particularly, the UK, seen by some as a warning that the philanthropy push, by intention or incomprehension, will encourage privatisation of public systems and the gradual shrinking of public effort based on a progressive taxation system.

Much seems to depend on the form of philanthropy involved. Some of the big UK partnerships of business, schools, government and philanthropy are a long way from Lady Bountiful and tax-deductible bequests. They can claim what appear to be spectacular successes in resurrecting failing schools in disadvantaged regions by building 'social capital' and triggering a 'multiplier effect'.

But these ventures come with risks too. What happens if a partner runs out of capacity or patience? Do these partnerships suffer from that old familiar in schools, innovation fatigue? Do they take more in energy and focus than they return in better schooling and better outcomes?

As well, some partners turn out to want more control or kudos than the schools are willing to cede. The government might be a pain to work for but at least it's a known quantity, and it's in there for the long haul.

There is also the risk of communicable diseases. Some years ago a performing arts school was set up with grants of $1 million from the Victorian government and $300,000 from the Pratt Foundation. It was not long before Richard Pratt was disgraced by revelations of price fixing on a grand scale. In his own defence Pratt often appealed to his record of giving to the community, without pointing out that he gave a lot less than he took.

Bond University could tell the same tale. Not too many people in schools want to be complicit in that kind of stratagem, or cop the collatoral damage when things go wrong.

More difficult is understanding what might be the overall impact of localised initiatives. It is easier to dwell on glowing examples than to anticipate effects on the whole system. Are the schools that attract philanthropic support the ones that already have imaginative and energetic leadership? And what happens to the schools that don't or can't get out there and compete for energy and attention? Does their relative disadvantage increase?

Here arise several dilemmas. Should public money and policy help those who can't help themselves, reward those who do, or simply let events take their course? Will additional funding and support that starts out as a supplement end up as a substitution, allowing governments to weasel out of their responsibilities?

Then there's the problem of the left hand of government not knowing what the right hand is doing. Serious donors almost always want serious tax deductions, so to the extent that they give to schools already well off, the taxation arm of government may push public money toward the advantaged while the education policy and funding arm tries to push it in the opposite direction.

Much will depend on governments' ability to both encourage private involvement and set rules to ensure that it tackles need and benefits the whole system, not just some schools in it.

The Federal Government's recent guiding principles for school-business partnerships are not encouraging. They read like the work of an accountant, concentrating on machinery and sustainability to the exclusion of guidance about priorities and how to get private effort and public policy to pull in the same direction.

The Government is still 'considering' Gonski's proposal for a new organisation to facilitate philanthropy in public schools. It should act on the recommendation, but not before beefing it up to include a kind of triage service to encourage those who want to contribute to public schools to go where need is greatest, to groups of schools (ideally cross-sectoral) rather than individual schools, and in ways that do more good than harm.

At the same time, it could review the ATO's rules about eligible donations. 

Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden was Ministerial Consultant (1983-86) to federal education minister Susan Ryan, and has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, philanthropy, education, Gonski, independent schools



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Existing comments

IDEA. A Benevolence-Tax is a tax on great wealth in which the payer can stipulate the benevolent use to be made of it, from a published list of organizations and purposes and organizations which would like to receive Benevolences (new meaning for an old word This super-tax is extracted from the rich taxpayer by the Tax Office and forwarded by them to the purpose or organization, to prevent any funny business. The payoff for the Benevolent Taxpayer is honor and glory. The tax is based on gross assets without loopholes. Honor and glory. Every year the Tax Office will provide newspapers with a list to publish on their front pages of the particular Benevolence Taxes paid by those with incomes over say $ OAP 15 (15 times the income of an old-age pensioner) in order to reduce them to that maximum income. Everyone whose taxable income in any one year is over $100,000 pays a graduated Benevolence Tax and they can specify on their tax forms the Benevolent Use they would wish made of it, Plaques are put on whatever his/her Benevolence Tax pays for, and wherever possible their name is immortalized.

valerie yule | 15 February 2013  

Public schools funded by all taxpayers have served Australian children well for over one hundred years, and can continue to do so. Let’s not get into philanthropic games for public schooling. As this article shows, the risks of doing so indiscriminately outweigh any temporary advantages . The long standing principle of education being free, compulsory and secular for all who choose has much to recommend it in our diverse society.

Brian | 15 February 2013  

There is something rather pathetic about governments too scared to either raise taxes or to design a tax that works, then telling people they should be handing over private funds to fund public functions. But worse, when governments design tax laws that encourage the minimisation of tax paying, allows hollow-logs to exist, makes no international effort to close down tax havens and fails to tax a $30b industry, like 'religion', why should any of us take philanthorpy seriously?

janice wallace | 15 February 2013  

Any whiff of imposing generosity on the general population by any government always ends in disaster, note the failure of the MRRT. The Gonski Report is looking more and more like an imposition rather than an invitation with every press release.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 15 February 2013  

No philanthropy please for public education. It is the responsibility of the state to provide free public secular education for all children irrespective of their socio-economic background. Once you get private enterprise funding public education, then they will seek to influence the curriculum that will suit their agenda. For e.g a high school in country NSW and a mining company. As an ex-educator, I wouldn't want individuals who aren't trained teachers telling me how to do my job. Teachers are trained professionals who know what they need to do in the classroom. Maybe it's time we told our elected officials that we the voters want our hard earned tax dollars going into public education. Otherwise why are we paying tax to the state? for what reason? No philanthropy in public education.

Terry | 15 February 2013  

There is no place for tax-deductible philanthropy in education or health except perhaps at the fringes. Allocation of scarce funds is a function of democratically elected government, not self appointed benefactors. Imagine the hullabaloo if we seriously suggested that the defence forces be required to rely on private philanthropy to fund either their basic operations or their capital purchases.

Ginger Meggs | 18 February 2013  

Would it be dreadfully cynical of me to wonder what's in it for companies expected to become philanthropic sponsors of public schools? US arms manufacturer Raytheon already sponsors Aberfoyle Park High School in Adelaide by among other philanthropic gestures, supplying laptop computers to senior students through the "Ignite" program funded by the South Australian Department of Education and Children's Services. Perhaps there really is a warm inner glow or feeling of obligation, a noblesse oblige of capitalism to contribute somehow through education to the health and wellbeing of future generations?

DavidSt | 20 February 2013