The Gillard Labor Government enlisted businessman David Gonski to advise it on the best way forward to improve Australia’s education performance across the board. In the shadow of the 2013 election, the states, territories, Catholic and independent schools signed up to a new funding deal based on Gonski’s “needs based, sector blind” principles.
It was controversial but popular. Labor pledged a massive injection of funds to address the disadvantage that Gonski and his experts identified. Put simply, the idea was to set a national benchmark and then ensure that all children, no matter where they were or what school they went to, would be given the resources to reach it.
The Abbott opposition promised to match Labor. Then-spokesman, Christopher Pyne, said there was not “a cigarette paper’s” difference between Labor and the Liberals’ education policies. In government, that changed. The biggest change was reneging on funding beyond the four year forward estimates which smashed the decade horizon of the Gillard deal. This is the basis of Labor’s claims of the Liberals cutting billions from education. The Liberals countered by saying no government can realistically commit to decade-long funding. That was until Prime Minister Scott Morrison did just that last week for the Catholics and Independents.
By using the device of a new way of calculating parents’ incomes and ability to pay school fees, Morrison in effect has put back the money the Liberal governments – Abbott and Turnbull – had defaulted on. The Catholics are happier; Ross Fox from the ACT Catholic Education Office says it means many of his schools won’t close and fees will be kept affordable.
So far so good, except that 65% of Australian children are educated in public schools. The special deal that has bought peace with the private sector has sparked outrage in the public area.
NSW Liberal Education Minister, Rob Stokes, says he “won’t be signing any deal that doesn’t treat every student and every school with fairness”; a sentiment echoed by his Victorian Labor counterpart, James Merlino.
The Australian Education Union is threatening a high intensity campaign against the Liberals in 18 marginal seats unless the public sector’s concerns are addressed.
If Morrison’s first four weeks is anything to go by, he is more likely than not to cave in. Five million public school parents are hard to ignore.