The Politics    Friday, April 13, 2018

Pub test: school funding

By Paddy Manning

Pub test: school funding

Paddy Manning

Topsy-turvy politics and unexpected opinions

The politics of school funding is so confused now that it is hard to know who to trust. On the Coalition side, Education Minister Simon Birmingham talks about overfunded private schools (while topping up their coffers with a secret slush fund) and gets into hot water with his conservative colleagues by taking money away from the Catholic sector. On the Labor side, shadow minister Tanya Plibersek worries about people who “hate private schools”, and is promising to ply the Catholic sector with taxpayer dollars. Everything’s gone topsy-turvy.

As Commonwealth, state and territory education ministers meet [$] in Adelaide, I head west to do a straw poll at the Greystanes Inn, just south of Parramatta, where the public schools are disadvantaged. I don’t get the opinions I expect. One guy in fluoro is sending his kids to a Catholic primary school, just to make sure they get into the right Catholic high school. It’s a feeder-school thing: “The unfortunate truth is private high schools do favour primary school students from private primary schools, that’s just the reality of it, it’s an unwritten rule in my view. They say it’s equal access, but I don’t believe it is. Kids in a private Christian school, primary, get preference.” He won’t say which schools he’s talking about, but both are in the Parramatta diocese. What does he think about taxpayers funding private schools? “The more the better!” When I ask if there’s a level of funding to private schools that would concern him, he answers: “Well, taxpayers shouldn’t be funding lots of things, so if they want to create a list of one through to 1000 of what shouldn’t be funded, then by all means kill funding to other things that don’t deserve it, rather than this first.”

I ask him about situations where there are really rich private schools, and he replies: “Consider the location you’re in, there’s no one really rich here, we’re all trying to make ends meet, and trying to do the best for our kids. So, a question like that, maybe throw at a North Shore student. I don’t think there’s anyone really rich out here … that’s the problem, this argument about taking funding away doesn’t discriminate between Kings School and everyone else.”

His preferred solution is not to take funding away from those well-funded schools, but to means test the families, with a sliding scale of school fees, without taking the funding away from everyone. The more I ask about fairness, the more he digs in: if public schools don’t have adequate grounds, they should go out and buy more – the private schools paid for their land, didn’t they? His reason for sending his kids to a Catholic school in the first place? Because private schools have “some sort of decision making when it comes to staffing; in public schools you don’t get that.” 

A second guy, a Liberal voter who tells me he’s an avid 2GB listener, says his son and daughter go to Catholic primary schools locally – mainly for the discipline, 100 per cent – and are headed for local Catholic high schools Cerdon College and St Pauls, and he doesn’t have a problem with taxpayer funding for private schools. “It’s the old problem, if they don’t get taxpayer funding, it’s going to be a burden on the public schools … the public schools are overrun already, so how are they going to cope with it?” He’s not opposed to co-ed schools – he prefers them – but there’s no option. For him a Catholic education is a “happy medium. You’re not going to a rich exclusive private, private school and you’re not in the general public system, you’re getting a step in between.” His mate asks: “Didn’t you go to Cranbrook? Or Geelong Grammar, was it?” (Neither, actually, it was Chatswood Public.) He knows nothing about the local public school. “I wouldn’t even entertain it.” Sure, there is a level where the elite private schools should lose public funding – “if they want to go over the top” – but he certainly believes there should be baseline funding, a bit lower than for public schools, even for those schools at the very top.

A third guy sent his daughters to a public school and believes the funding is not fair, “not by any means: they need more for the public schools. Some of the independents and the Catholic schools, they’ve got plenty of money. Look at the ones near the city and that. They get funding and they turn up in Lamborghinis! They don’t turn up in old Holdens, do they?” There’s a lot to do for the public schools, he says, and “look at the results – they’re right up there – a mate of mine he had kids go to a private school, he pulled them out, ’cos they weren’t getting the education he was paying for”. He hasn’t voted for 20 years: “They took me off the electoral roll, and they wouldn’t tell me why.”

A fourth guy, a Liberal voter, sent his only daughter to the nearby Presbyterian Ladies College, an elite school that charges about $25,000 a year. “Private schools are run as a business. I don’t think they should expect anything from the government. Private schools should not get public funding.” She got a great education, and the school was tolerant of all cultures, with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths represented.

There’s no elite school hit-list at this pub. The tattooed bunch sitting outside – no kids yet – have no interest in doing an interview, but have one thing to tell me, repeatedly, and it’s classic dog-eat-dog: “if you’re not fast, you’re dead last.”

since this morning

Federal Labor frontbencher Mark Butler, candidate for the party presidency, is set to lose [$] his South Australian seat of Port Adelaide in a redrawing of electoral boundaries ahead of the next election.

The AFR’s Jacob Greber writes that the Reserve Bank of Australia, in its financial stability review released today, has raised “a litany of concerns with a common denominator – too much debt and complacency”.

The ABC reports that a federal government immigration tweak will see “overseas Asians out, integrated Kiwis in”.

in case you missed it

In the AFR, Phillip Coorey writes [$] that “Labor and the Coalition agree on very little these days but if there is one mutual hope it is this: the High Court accepts Labor Senator Katy Gallagher’s defence that she took all reasonable steps to renounce her dual citizenship before the last election.”

Also in the AFR, Lisa Murray has this [$] examination of how Malcolm Turnbull’s relationship with China has turned sour.

Donald Trump has told [$] his senior economic and trade advisers to examine the possibility of the US re-entering the 11-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, and “get it done”.

The Daily Telegraph revealed that the prime minister has a $1 million personal stake in the Sydney-based Bronte Capital hedge fund that bets on certain Australian mining companies’ and retailers’ share prices falling.

The Energy Security Board has issued [$] a draft design outlining a light-touch approach to the National Energy Guarantee that will make it easier for small retailers to challenge the market power of energy giants such as AGL Energy, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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