Richer or poorer

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, employment services and education fields. As economic deregulation leads to a winding back of public services, the legislative search is underway to ensure greater public accountability from non-government providers of such services. The Church cannot avoid addressing this complex and perhaps inevitable trend.

As the logic of deregulation bites hard into Catholic educational fund sharing arrangements designed to counter economic rationalist trends, state wide Catholic intra-systemic agreements—aimed at redistributing funds between rich and poor Catholic schools—are under threat.

Several long-established Catholic girls’ schools across Australia are well advanced in their plans to reopen preparatory and middle schools, irrespective of the devastating effect on surrounding parish schools. Some Catholic boys’ colleges have been doing this for years. The driving force behind this campaign is that, barring a fees hike, attracting more students is the only way of ensuring a school’s viability.

The emphasis on improved educational outcomes has attracted the uncritical support of some Catholic schools, concerned with conserving market share, and consequently committed to a reintroduction of policies of selection and streaming.

Such solutions, discredited in the 70s and 80s, are contrary to prevailing educational ideas on inclusive values, diverse teaching practices and classrooms. Such practices pose a particular threat to the mainstream integration of disabled and Indigenous students.

Melbourne University’s Dean of Education, Professor Brian Caldwell, has called for public and private schools to be brought into one national framework of equally funded, equally accessible education. This would mirror the education systems of New Zealand and the Netherlands, among other countries, where all schools meet stringent public accountability standards, while demonstrating greater independence and accessibility than in Australia. This proposal has drawn no response as yet from the Catholic sector.

The current position of the Catholic sector—formerly based on a rejection of New Zealand’s model—has drawn criticism from some Catholic parents. The needs of Catholic parents clearly cannot be satisfied by a system which is committed to charging fees and which fails to educate the majority of Catholic Australians.

Moreover, the social justice ethos of Australian Catholics is increasingly at odds with the practise of syphoning public funds to private schools, many of which have no commitment to the inclusive and egalitarian practices of a public education system.

It should be a matter of concern to all Australians that Catholic schools have now taken out full membership of the private school club as part of a Government-induced strategy to regulate and contain their former unique identity as neither state schools nor private ones.

When Professor Judith Sloan of the Centre for Independent Studies argued against the separate treatment of the Catholic claim to school funding, no public defence of the Catholic view followed. A fuller debate, focussing on the diverse needs of non-government providers of schooling, is sorely needed.

Michael Furtado’s recent doctorate is on education funding policy and its impact on Catholic schools.



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