The one thing that Gonski 2.0 has gotten right
In the myriad of commentary over the Turnbull government’s proposed Gonski 2.0 reforms, it has become clear that Gonski 2.0 is neither the great saviour of public education nor is it the harbinger of doom for the Catholic and private school systems.
It is clearly a highly flawed piece of legislation that in trying to address inequity and maintain favour of special interests has been able to achieve neither. The weeknight #Gonski Twitter stream is a cavalcade of opinion, assertion and nonsense, speckled with the odd pearl of clear thought and analysis. Depending on the perspective, the prevailing schools of thought appear to be that this is either the greatest piece of education funding legislation in forty years or the worst. It is neither.
As more detail emerges, it is clear that equity issues are being addressed in some areas, and overlooked in others. Whilst the Catholic system has been wailing about their perceived losses, they are not totally losing here, and some schools may still gain. Perhaps the wailing is truly due to the public exposure of just how much public money they receive and the relevant Catholic central offices uneven distribution of those funds. The independent sector has been strangely mute, perhaps realising that in this particular case, discretion is the better part of valour. The cat that got the cream can’t always be seen to be complaining.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s late 2016 admission that some private and Catholic schools are over funded, an idea which has now been ingrained into the 2.0 legislation, has marked an important change of discourse. It has raised the most important question in school funding in Australia, which has hitherto gone unspoken. Should private and Catholic schools receive public funds at all?
And this is what Gonski 2.0 has gotten absolutely correct. Inadvertent as it may have been, the question has now changed from how much public funding private and Catholic schools should receive to the real question: should private and Catholic schools receive any public funds? This is an important distinction, but a public debate that needs to be had. The Australian public simply does not know how much of their tax is going towards paying for other people’s kids to attend schools that their kids can’t. They need to know, and Gonski 2.0 is starting to pull back the curtain.
True Democracies don’t institutionalise special interests. Unfortunately, by publicly funding private and Catholic schools, Australia has been doing that for forty years now, and our democracy is the weaker for it. Let’s be clear, this is not a left wing or socialist idea. It’s a democratic idea. Free market advocates should be equally as appalled by public funds supporting what the free market can do, as those on the left are.
I won’t stray too far here into related arguments regarding the lack of accountability, transparency, merit and equity that is existent in the non-government sectors, which we expect of all other publicly funded institutions. I also won’t go too far into issues of the residualisation of public schooling, as the aspirant middle class move away from the government system – all troubling issues for the continuing strength of a democracy.
Public funds should not be spent in areas which are unavailable to the entire community, have zero accountability to the public and that institutionalise special interests. A colleague of mine has suggested it’s probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to publicly funding independent schools. Perhaps she is correct. However I for one am glad that we are having the debate, and that the Gonski 2.0 debate has started to bring more awareness to the Australian public of exactly how their money is being spent.