BUDGET 2024: Why is the money for public schools still missing?

By Matthew Sinclair

This is first in a series of posts on the 2024 Budget. Today: school funding by Curtin University’s Matthew P. Sinclair, a lecturer in education policy. Tomorrow: early childhood care and education by the University of New England’s Marg Rogers, postdoctoral fellow at the Manna Institute Monday: higher education by the University of Melbourne’s Abigail Payne, director of the Melbourne Institute.

This is beginning to feel like the “Gonski 3.0” phase of school funding policy reform that will yet again fall short for public schools

We’ve seen this movie before. This time the actors are different but the plot remains the same. 

Analysing Tuesday night’s federal budget was a timely reminder that fully funding the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) for all Australian public schools has been an unattainable goal since at least 2012—when the Review of Funding for Schooling’s final report [the Gonski Review] was publicly released. 

There’s nothing put aside

An analysis of the forward estimates for public schools beyond 2025 shows there’s nothing put aside by the federal ALP for New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria to help reach 100% of the SRS any time soon. 

Nor does the money appear for Western Australia (WA) or the Northern Territory (NT). Earlier this year they signed Statements of Intent to deliver an agreement to fully fund the SRS of public schools in the coming years—2026 for the former and 2029 for the latter—in a deal worth an additional $785.4 million and $737 million in federal money respectively over five years.

Regarding the signing on of WA and the NT, as Elisa Di Gregorio, Professor Jane Kenway and I pointed out earlier this year, WA was low hanging fruit given they funded more than 100% of the SRS in 2018, and the robust state of its economy— it delivered its sixth straight budget surplus last week. While the Northern Territory, in terms of its population of under 300,000, is much smaller than the eastern states who are yet to sign on.

Ongoing budget negotiations – but does that matter?

Of course, Minister for Education Jason Clare would point to the ongoing negotiations between the federal government and the unsigned states on coming to an agreement for public schools to begin a path to reaching 100% of the SRS. And the fact that the next set of bilateral agreements are set to be signed at the end of the year as part of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA), and that the money is there and available.

In response, I would point out that the Gonski Review, which first recommended the SRS as a needs based funding framework, was commissioned in 2010 and delivered its final report to the federal government in December 2011. Furthermore, the previous set of national school funding bilateral agreements between the federal government and the states and territories expired at the end of 2023, and required a 12-month extension.

Almost 5 months later we still don’t have five states signed on for the next agreement that we’ve been promised will get all public schools to 100% of the SRS sooner rather than later. 

Memories of Gillard past

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this trajectory in school funding policy for public schools before. The Gillard government in 2013 put together a six-year funding deal that promised to get public schools to 100% of the SRS. The problem was that two thirds of the funding was to come in the fifth and sixth years of the deal, and had not been budgeted for in the forward estimates. 

At the time of the deal, the Gillard government was in a precarious political position and unlikely to win the two elections needed to deliver on the promise. Thus, when the Abbott government won power in 2013, they either had to find two thirds of all the funding promised by the ALP in two years, or take a new direction. 

As we know, they chose the latter, and this led to the ALP being able to use school funding policy as a political weapon against the Coalition, arguing they were cutting funding for public schools when in fact that money was only promised, and never budgeted for. The ALP made similar arguments during the Gonski 2.0 phase of school funding reform where they presented their unfulfilled promises as hard policy.

The ALP’s slim majority

This storyline came back to me Tuesday evening looking at the federal budget papers and thinking about the 12 month extension to the current funding agreements. After listening to Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers’ speech, and looking at the forward estimates, my first reaction was to check the next election date. It is May 2025, at the latest, and the federal ALP sits on a slim majority of 77 of 151 seats in the lower house of parliament. 

Under the current extended bilateral agreements, the states and territories are meant to provide 80% of the SRS for public schools and 20% for non-government schools. While the federal government provides 20% to public schools and 80% to non-government schools. 

Well short of the budget mark

The reason public schools outside of the Australian Capital Territory are not consistently funded at 100% of the SRS is the states and the NT do not fully fund the 80% and in some cases are well short of that mark. 

Minister Clare knows this well and is proposing lifting the federal share of public funding from 20% to 22.5% in a deal worth an extra $6bn over five years, while the unsigned states want the federal government to lift its share to 25%, in order for them to contribute 75%. 

Minister Clare also wants funding tied to new reporting obligations that he argues will lift student outcomes; the states who are yet to sign on are arguing this is yet another level of compliance for schools and teachers. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens want more urgency from the federal government on reaching 100% of the SRS. 

History repeated

All of this feels like history repeated. The ALP makes promises about fully funding the SRS for public schools, the Greens call for fully funding public education, the money isn’t budgeted for across the forward estimates, and then political winds change, and the money never lands.

Is this the Gonski 3.0 phase of school funding policy? It is beginning to feel that way and the current trajectory suggests it may well end the same way as 1.0 and 2.0. 

Although, there is still a possibility that Minister Clare and the remaining states will come to an agreement and sign on to finally fully fund the SRS of all public schools during the next set of bilateral agreements, which provides hope. 

Indeed, Minister Clare has achieved positive results so far including much needed money for public school infrastructure (although much more capital works funding is required), putting together a national plan to address the teacher shortage, and paid school placements for some university students, and more.

We need a positive ending

However, he has a lot more work to do to deliver on his commitment to getting all public schools on a path to 100% of the SRS.   For our less advantaged students, for a change, we need a positive ending to this school funding policy story. 

Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His first book titled Equity and Influence in the Funding of Schools is on track to be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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