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Upper Class Dismissed

4 minute read

No matter who you are, if you want to stir up a lot of people, voice strong opinions on education. Specifically, wade into the topic of government funding of private schools. By encompassing children, religion and ideology, as well as concepts of fairness, entitlement and sacrifice, it pushes buttons like a madman. Which is why politicians have tended to tread carefully around it.

Until Mark Latham came along. The Labor Party leader’s pitch for government includes a pledge to redirect money going to Australia’s wealthiest schools toward more needy ones, with Catholic schools set to receive the bulk of it. To many people, this makes Latham a hero. Others are appalled. “The prospect of sectarian tension,” says Bill Daniels, executive director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, “is something this country just doesn’t need.”

Few leaders in Australia’s history have been bold enough to orchestrate a sharp turn in school funding policy. In 1880, when less than a third of New South Wales children received schooling, the state’s premier, Henry Parkes, pushed through the Public Instruction Act, establishing free, secular and compulsory education. Grand stuff; but by simultaneously withdrawing all aid from denominational schools, Parkes caused almost a century of community division.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Prime Minister Robert Menzies began sending a little public money the way of independent schools as one-off grants for new labs and libraries; in the 1970s Latham’s mentor, Gough Whitlam, courting the Catholic vote, introduced recurrent funding to independent schools based on need. Without fanfare, the Howard government since 1996 has become an increasingly generous backer of private education, with a funding formula that pivots on the socioeconomic status of the students’ district of residence and takes no account of a school’s facilities or fees. Still, when funding from all levels of government is tallied, private school students drain between $A2,000 to $A7,000 a year from the public purse, compared to the state student’s $A10,000.

Since Latham’s schools policy announcement on Sept. 14, those notoriously hard markers – talkback callers – have accused him of inciting class warfare. But are his proposals really so radical? If Henry Parkes’ contribution was a missile, Latham’s is a firecracker. There are some 2,700 non-government schools in Australia. Under Labor, 67 would have their federal grants reduced over five years, while another 111 would have their grants frozen. The money saved – about $A520 million – would be redistributed to independent schools that charge relatively low fees. Also pledging $A1.9 billion for the public system over the same period, Latham said: “Labor has a very different approach to the Howard government: we fund schools on the basis of need.” As a result, “every school in this country – government or non-government – will be a good school.”

Among observers who’ve scrawled an “F” on Latham’s plan are those who believe he hasn’t gone far enough in putting high-fee schools in their place. In the U.S., U.K. and New Zealand, governments give nothing to private schools, says Jane Caro, convener of the advocacy group Priority Public. Australia is probably too far down the opposite path to turn back, she says, “but I wish we’d never gone that way.” Parents argue that because they save the public thousands of dollars a year per child by opting for private education, they’re entitled to a return on their taxes in the form of moderately generous government grants to private schools. But this argument, says Greens spokesman Jon Edwards, indicates a misunderstanding of the purpose of tax, which governments should redistribute for the good of the community – “not to make personalized refunds that service our choices.” Some of the schools on Latham’s hit list have warned they’ll have to raise their fees if their funding’s cut.

Caro points out that none of them lowered their fees when their grants rose under the Coalition. “And they never will,” she says, “because for institutions that thrive on an image of exclusivity, cutting fees would be terrible marketing.”

But if Latham’s been unfairly caned for wielding what is really a tiny axe, the more salubrious private schools are feeling misunderstood, too. Lost in the buzz about high fees is the fact that every school on Latham’s list is a not-for-profit institution. In Australia, no one gets rich owning or running private schools. “Governments fund students, not schools,” says I.S.C.A.’s Daniels. Education consultant Gregory Heath says that Latham’s platform is “just part of the mix … it won’t swing the election.” By reviving an issue that inflames passions like few others, however, Latham has made life in the social playground a little more interesting.

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