Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Richer or poorer

  • 22 May 2006

The return of Federal Parliament signalled a year in which both parties will need to stake out their education funding policies en route to an election. Labor’s forays into education have been confined to softening the image of its leader with an emphasis on the importance of parents reading to their children.

Messrs Howard and Nelson have adopted positions critical of the educational values of state schools ensuring that the next four-year funding deal will deliver continued support to a constituency in favour of parental choice in education. Labor’s riposte has been to promise to redistribute funding from rich to poor non-government schools. In general terms the direction of school funding policy will continue to follow student enrolments.

In the wider debate about tertiary fees and boys’ education, not much attention has been paid to the position of the Catholic school sector, apart from a handshake and a shared cup of tea between the Prime Minister and Cardinal Pell as they signed the latest funding deal. Closer scrutiny may be in order.

The Coalition’s focus on the cancellation of a nativity play at a state school as the rationale for why parents enrol their children in the private sector, does not address the compelling Christian message of room for all at the inn. Inclusive enrolment policies and practices add authenticity to the role of religious values in the life of the Catholic school.

There is currently no Commonwealth requirement for private providers to make their schools more accessible by lowering fees. This means that access to inter-systemic educational choice in Australia still depends on one’s capacity to pay. Open enrolment policies are at present absolutely honoured only in state schools. This is evident in the findings of the Melbourne Catholic Education Office, whose recent research through the University of Melbourne shows that its schools are becoming too expensive for some parents.

The history of state aid has hitherto ensured that Catholic schools, which cater to a quarter of Australian students, have been most reluctant to enter the state aid battle. The Catholic sector has preferred to restate its position only when pushed, remaining publicly mute on the ethics of overall current funding policy trends for apparent fear of splitting public opinion, as in the 50s and 60s, on questions of state aid.

The Catholic Church, as Australia’s second largest employer, is one of the largest non-profit, fee-for-service providers in the health, aged care,