September 14, 2004 | Graham

Labor – school for envy

Labor’s education policy ditches Howard’s transparent and fair funding formula in favour of rewarding Labor state governments and teachers’ unions at the same time playing the politics of envy and the art of the sectional special deal.
For decades now the teachers’ unions have been waging a campaign against Federal Government funding of private schools. I remember my friend Mary Kelly, then President of the QTU, whingeing about it back in 1986 or thereabouts. They were probably complaining when Menzies first implemented the idea in 1963.
For the last couple of years the intensity of their campaign has risen, with National Highways and airways littered with the detritus. The campaign has intensified, partly as a result of the federal government’s decision to put the funding of private schools on a transparent basis.
For years private schools have been funded on the basis of more or less self-reported need. This was obviously open to manipulation. A couple of years ago the federal government changed this, calculating need on the basis of the income profiles of families sending their children to private schools. Without using the actual tax returns of families they estimated incomes on the basis of the socio-demographic of the areas from which they drew students. (This can be done fairly precisely on the basis of the 200 or so houses making up a census collector district).
As a result of this something was crystallised. Many of the people sending their children to the wealthier private schools were actually poorer than many of those sending their children to the needier private schools, and judged on this basis some of the pooer schools were over-paid and the richer schools under-paid.
Let me put this in a more personal perspective. Both my sisters and I went to primary school at St Joseph’s at Kangaroo Point, by any definition one of the needier schools, certainly compared to East Brisbane State where we started our education. In secondary school I went to Villanova, a second tier catholic school, and they went to Sommerville House, an elite protestant school. The family income was modest and didn’t vary much in the time we were all at school, except that my parents were on the aged pension when my younger sister matriculated. However, my parents effectively received significantly more assistance towards my schooling than they did towards my sisters’, even though their need was at least the same for all of us, and arguably greater when my younger sister was finishing.
Was this a reasonable thing? Were we just an anomaly? Well, the government’s SES tables which rank schools for the socio-economic status of students actually suggest that in terms of income there is not really much separating those who send their kids to Sommerville House or Villanova.
But what happens when you adjust for that impartial assessment is that Villanova potentially loses money, and Sommerville House gains it. The Federal Government is too canny to do that, so they increased all funding, but it increased a little more for some of the schools that have historically been underpaid. This creates the impression that rich private schools are being advantaged to the detriment of poor schools, and it is that perception that Labor is playing on.
That’s not the only politics in the announcement. It is allegedly a $2.4 billion package, but $520 million is already being spent in the sector. It is to be taken from some of the richer schools and given to the poorer ones. It is not apparent who will be the winners here, but $378 million will go to Catholic schools who have done a special deal with the Opposition called a “Community Charter”.
Details of the charter aren’t up on the website, but it has the smell of sectarianism about it, and the special wheels and deals that used to go into private school funding policies. The big growth in private schools has been in Anglican, other protestant denomination and Muslim schools. They appear to have been left out in the cold here
Catholic schools aren’t the only ones that get a special deal. The word “historic” has made a come back in the Labor lexicon. Once upon a time, in the Hawke and Keating years, everything Labor did was “historic”. Now it’s back, this time as a description of the deal that Latham has done with the states on this one. Some deal. Not only have the states reaped record receipts from the GST, which are meant to pay for education, amongst other things, but now Latham Labor is effectively topping them up another $1.9 billion. Someone’s numerate here, and it’s not the feds.
There are strings attached however. Not only will the states have to implement reporting procedures (something which Brendan Nelson already appears to have achieved for a fraction the cost of this package), but they will have to “teach Australian values”. What exactly will those be?
Despite the charges of those on the left, when Howard talked about parents sending their children to private schools because they wanted them to be taught values he wasn’t talking about a particular set of values, but he was talking about values specific to those parents that they didn’t think could be taught in the state school system.
Latham’s policy is taking funds from the value pluralists, the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and non-denominational schools and giving it back to the state to administer. One can only wonder what sort of anodyne platitudes these funds will go to promote.
Still, this is smart politics. The blue collar vote that Hanson won and Howard won back has strong DLP elements. Menzies pitched to them with the original federal funding of private schools, because DLP equalled Catholic, and it was Catholic schools who were the benficiaries of his initial policy. That the Catholic systemic schools were prepared to cut a deal this election indicates that they are prepared to back Labor. Just like the last election, at one level this election is about what happens to the vote that for a short period of time went to One Nation.
With this policy Latham gets a wedge in there, rewards the teachers’ unions, and gives a little more to state governments. Still, I’ll be interested to see whether it is really a vote shifter. If the government could get their rhetoric right on this one they could show the policy up for the pacification of special interest groups and pitch to envy that it is.

Posted by Graham at 10:48 pm | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. It’s fairness not envy

    Graham Young over on Ambit Gambit has a post about Labor’s education policy release that trots out the usual kneejerk conservative slur against Labor: Latham’s policy is based on “envy”. But unlike most such defences of existing privilege, Graham argue…

    Comment by Troppo Armadillo — September 15, 2004 @ 11:50 am

  2. Imposing values is obnoxious

    One aspect of Labor’s education policy where I emphatically agree with Graham Young is in the area of values. Labor’s policy document says (page 11): A Federal Labor Government will provide $150 million over five years to teach Australian values…

    Comment by Troppo Armadillo — September 15, 2004 @ 1:03 pm

  3. Personally, I have never understood why people who are “poorer” feel the need to send their kids to “wealthier” schools in the first place. If it is not based on some kind of envy, it must, in part, be a sort of capitulation to the idea that public equals inferior (even, paradoxically, when depending on funding from the government).
    Dr Nelson keeps going on about parents having three jobs to give kids a private education. Well, what sort of rubbish values are those where elitism is more important than spending time with your children.
    If you don’t have the money don’t, and if you do send your kid to a public school in the interests of promoting equity and the belief that everybody has gifts and talents and deserves to have them recognised.
    By the way, I see good old Miranda Devine is accusing Mark Latham of old-style class politics and class hatred in her article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
    However, surely the biggest, and most powerful, fighters for class warfare (and I hate to use the term because it sounds so old-hat, but they started it) are those who truly believe in the ideals that schools like Kings promote.
    What they are truly contributing to is the creation of a deeply classist society, even if Australia fails to acknowledge it.

    Comment by Darlene — September 16, 2004 @ 9:22 pm

  4. Catholics for many years were ALP (old ALP) supporters, however when the socialist/communist/atheist influence became stronger where were the micks to go. Hence the DLP.
    As the ALP went further with the luvvies and other special interest groups at the expense of the micks, the micks voted with their feet and followed the people who were prepared to support their schools.
    It seems to be a single issue that caused a bleeding of the ALP, and which still occurs. The latest attempt is to return these people to the fold.
    If Latham is elected, it will be wonderful to see the micks and the luvvies and the atheists hunkered down in earnest discussion confirming just how much the Catholic schools will get.
    Not to forget the NSW(?) Teachers Federation plans to challenge federal funding of private “religious” schools on the constitutional grounds.

    Comment by DaveACT — September 16, 2004 @ 11:32 pm

  5. Why is the “f” always the benchmark? Funding is merely a distraction and money is not the panacae for all that’s wrong with public education. The question remaining unaddressed is WHY is the public sector being abandoned in droves by parents seeking something they think is better, and it is not always a high UAI that is sought? Is it perhaps that parents are uneasy with what they see happening in their local public school, is there a perception that there are idealogues in the upper echelons of education stuck in a time warp, where mediocrity is pursued as the standard and that excellence is elitist and vulgar. The values argument has been so compromised as to be irrelevant. But sadly, there is a perception out here that the public education system is inferiour, this was not the case when I went to school and certainly not the case with many of my friends and relatives. It is too simplistic to say that money is the complete answer as to the WHY the flight and to be satsified that additional funding to the public sector will deliver equity in eduction is merely “head-in-the sand” to the detriment of our children who deserve an eduction system which will draw out their worth and potential and prepare them for the future, which will be theirs and ours.

    Comment by Mary Lou Carter — September 19, 2004 @ 10:16 am

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