All students are equal, why fund them differently?

May 23, 2013 by

Kevin Donnelly –

Both the Government’s Australian Education Bill and the Opposition’s new education policy have been influenced by the Gonski Review. Here, Kevin Donnelly critiques the contentious report into education funding.

There’s no doubt that the recommendations of the Gonski school funding review favour government schools and discriminate against independent and Catholic schools.

It’s also true that if Australian students are to be among the top five nations in international mathematics and science tests by 2025 then non-government schools deserve increased funding and not less.

The report’s second recommendation, in relation to non-government schools, states that the level of public funding will “be based on the anticipated capacity of the parents enrolling their children in the school to contribute financially towards the school’s resource standards”.

No such requirement relates to government schools. Unlike government schools, where the suggestion is that they receive the full base amount of government funding, what is known as the Schooling Resource Standard, it’s also the case that non-government schools are treated differently.

Recommendation number 17 states that “Australian governments should base public funding for most non-government schools on the anticipation that the private contribution will be at least 10 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard per student amounts”.

Clearly, unlike government schools where parents are not expected to contribute financially, non-government schools will have their level of government support adjusted according to the amount raised locally via school fees and other sources of income.

There is no such requirement under the existing socioeconomic status (SES) school funding model that is due to expire at the end of the year.

Treating non-government schools differently to government schools is unfair. All students, regardless of school attended, should be treated equally on the basis that education is an essential human right and all deserve government support.

The right to a non-government school education, often faith-based, is enshrined in international agreements such as the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education.

Article 5.1 (b) states in relation to parents, “It is essential to respect the liberty of persons… firstly to choose for their children institutions other than those maintained by the public authorities… and secondly to ensure that religious and moral education of the children (is) in conformity with their own convictions”.

That non-government schools should receive the same level of support as government schools is made more convincing given the fact that such schools, according to the Report on Government Services 2012, enrol approximately 35 per cent of students across Australia.

In justifying the fact that non-government schools are treated differently to government schools the Gonski report argues that there is a strong correlation between student performance and socioeconomic status (SES).

The report’s Executive Summary states there is, “an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and indigenous backgrounds”. The report also notes that government schools enrol high levels of disadvantaged, low SES students.

The link between performance and SES is far from proven. A 2001 Australian Council for Educational Research paper analysing the factors that influence Year 12 performance concludes that SES has only “a moderate relationship to tertiary entrance performance”.

In a 2010 paper Gary Marks, from the University of Melbourne, makes a similar point when he argues, “socioeconomic background does not have a strong relationship with student performance. It accounts for less than 10 per cent of the variation in both tertiary entry score and university participation”.

A more recent paper published in 2013 also suggests that a student’s SES is not the most important factor when identifying why some students outperform others. The authors write, “For TER, the average socioeconomic status of students at school does not emerge as a significant factor, after controlling for individual characteristics including academic achievement from the PISA test”.

The argument that non-government schools outperform government schools in areas like literary and numeracy tests and Year 12 results because they only enrol middle to high SES students is also open to doubt.

After analysing NAPLAN data and schools’ socioeconomic profile, measured by the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), the authors of Lessons from MySchool state, “The results also indicate that test outcomes vary by school sector, with non-government schools having higher average scores. Even after differences in schools’ ICSEA are taken into account”.

The fact that non-government schools achieve such strong results bolsters the argument that they receive a proper level of government support.

If the imperative is to raise standards then non-government schools should receive more state and commonwealth funding and not less.  As argued by two overseas researchers Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek:

“… students in countries where public funding is equalised between privately and publicly operated schools perform significantly better than students in countries where privately operated schools receive less government funding than publicly operated schools.”

At the same time, in order to put more parents in a situation where they can afford choice, school vouchers should be introduced. A situation where money goes directly to parents and where the voucher follows the student to whatever school, government or non-government, is chosen.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Standards Institute. View his full profile here.

via All students are equal, why fund them differently? – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

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