Private school elite makes public enemies

Sydney Morning Herald - 21st April, 2001
Author: Adele Horin.

There are lessons for us all in the crisis surrounding inequitable school funding, writes Adele Horin.

THE leading Aboriginal academic Professor Marcia Langton told an education forum this week that she sent her daughter to an elite private girls' school in Melbourne to escape the inequity and racism of public schools. Private education, she argued, was the best way for Aborigines to advance to positions of influence and leadership.

Langton reflects the familiar middle-class angst about public education and the common assumption that it is second-rate. It is an assumption not always put to the test of inquiry but it is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Public schools have become the poor relations of the education system. Yet a Federal Government committed to needs-based, targeted spending in all other areas of civic life, and generally critical of "elites", is hypocritical on education funding. It is lavishing money on the least needy sector, the private, while starving the public system. Virtually all the increase in spending on education a 30 per cent rise over the next four years is earmarked for private schools.

Back in 1974 when the Federal Government first involved itself in funding schools, the non-government sector needed to be brought up to scratch.

Now public schools are in crisis.

In many areas, they are struggling with hard-to-teach students, private school rejects, and victims of complex social and economic problems. At the same time they are trying to satisfy the aspirations of an anxious middle class. Can anyone doubt the job of the average public school is much more complex, difficult and challenging than the average private school?

Yet in the four years to 2004, public schools will receive virtually no increase in Commonwealth recurrent funding. Private schools, on the other hand, will benefit from a massive injection rising from $2.5 billion to $4.1 billion.

This has nothing to do with the drift of students from public to private schools 10 per cent since 1974 and everything to do with the new funding arrangements introduced by the Howard Government last year, based on parents' postcode. The system allows for the unfettered expansion of private schools. And it subsidises them based on a formula in total disregard of the schools' private assets or incomes, or their ability to raise funds.

The biggest beneficiaries are some of Australia's most elite private schools whose boatsheds are better equipped than some government primary schools.

The new arrangement isn't fair to Howard's cherished battlers and the two-thirds of students in public schools for whom "choice" is a nonsense.

Let's take as an example an elite girls' school, Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne. I don't know whether this is the school Langton's daughter attends, but the scenario is typical. PLC will receive $2 million more from the Federal Government in 2004 than it would have received under the old funding system. Like other wealthy schools that charge fees of $10,000 and more, PLC is able when you add the government subsidies to spend two to three times more per student than the high school down the road.

Money does not buy happiness. And it doesn't buy a social conscience, or an ability to mix it with all-comers. Nor does it explain entirely the middle-class lack of faith in public schools. There are other issues to do with teacher morale, union intransigence, and a lack of incentive to excel. But money goes a long way towards buying a good education, smaller class sizes, top-flight technology, good amenities and well-paid teachers.

Langton has a right to choose an elite school. But as Lyndsay Connors, a former member of the Commonwealth Schools Commission, writes in the current issue of Dissent magazine: "Rarely do governments [in other countries] feel it is their role to subsidise [the choice] of the fortunate few." Australia has already diverted more public resources to its philosophy of "freedom of choice" in education than any other country and now has growing inequality and unimpressive rates of school completion to show for it. It is doubtful, Connors says, Australia can afford to fund a high-quality public system and to expand an unregulated private system, too.

In the end, the fortunes of Aboriginal children will depend on the quality of their education and 85 per cent of them attend public schools. Some social reformers and Aboriginal leaders will emerge from Australia's private schools. Some will fight for a better deal for public education. But for the increasing numbers of middle-class students educated in private schools, self-interest will be hard to surmount. You won't hear many of them argue for a smaller cut of the funding pie.