federalism in Australia

Urgent: take a closer look at the Abbott Government’s plans for school funding

Two months ago, four proposals for reforming government roles and responsibilities in schooling were leaked from the Abbott Government’s federalism taskforce’s confidential Green Paper.

The most talked-about option involved the Commonwealth taking over the funding of all schools, and potentially charging parents fees for public schools, while the states would continue to do everything else in schooling.

Understandably, this provoked national outcry and valuable discussions about Australia’s growing inequities, the nature and importance of public education, and the broader purposes of schooling for individuals and the nation.

But this particular option is the least likely to be adopted.

The other three options from the federalism taskforce hardly made it into the public domain. This absence of scrutiny is worrying.

The Melbourne School of Government subsequently commissioned me to write a report assessing all four reform options proposed. I assessed each option against the six criteria put forward by the federalism taskforce. I also considered political feasibility, desirability and constitutionality.

The four reform options are:

  1. States and Territories fully responsible for all schools
  2. States and Territories responsible for funding public schools and the Commonwealth responsible for funding nongovernment schools. States remain responsible for delivery education in government schools and the regulatory framework for all schools.
  3. Reduced Commonwealth involvement in school programs
  4. The Commonwealth is the dominant funder of all students on an equal and consistent basis, but States and Territories maintain other current responsibilities, including the regulatory framework for all schools and the provision of public schools.

Here is a summary of what I found.



Option 1 (full state responsibility for schooling) is the clear winner, and has significant potential to improve schooling outcomes and equity. If schools and school systems only dealt with one level of government, it would make it easier for them to develop and implement coherent and responsive programs, and would make it easier for them to target funding and other resources to where needs are greatest. This arrangement already exists in Canada, which has a high-performing and high-equity school systems despite no federal department of education, federal minister or program involvement.

However, the success of Option 1 is dependent on the states receiving an increase in revenue commensurate with the increased funding responsibilities, which is politically difficult.

Option 3 (greatly reduced Commonwealth involvement) is the most likely proposal to be adopted. It offers the same potential benefits as Option 1, although to a lesser degree, and is likely to deteriorate over time.

Option 2 (split funding responsibilities) will likely exacerbate all existing inequities and inefficiencies, without delivering any substantial benefits.

Option 4 (The Commonwealth provides the funding but states do everything else) fails almost every criteria and would probably worsen outcomes, accountability and equity in Australia’s school system. Fortunately, it is also very unlikely.

Stagnant or falling results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, persistent gaps in resources and school completion rates, and worryingly-high student disengagement indicate new approaches are urgently needed in education policy.

It’s time we had a serious conversation about the intergovernmental reform options our state, territory and Commonwealth leaders are currently considering in the schooling portfolio.

The consequences for young people and for the nation of failing to reform current arrangements and failing to build solid foundation and framework for our schools are dire.


B+Hinz+smiling copyBronwyn Hinz is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government and a Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy. She is also in the final stages of a PhD which examines how federalism has shaped the reform of school funding policies at State and Commonwealth levels, which is jointly supervised by the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, at the University of Melbourne.

She has previously worked for the Education Foundation, the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, two federal politicians, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught public policy making and Australian politics. She has been a Visiting Scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where she undertook comparative research on intergovernmental institutions, school funding and education policy-making in the United States and in Canada.

Her research has won multiple national and international awards and her analysis frequently appears in print and broadcast media. Her first book, Many Hopes, One Dream, was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2009 and launched by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. More recently, she wrote the chapter on education policies for the 2014 edition of Australian Social Policy. Follow Bronwyn on her blog  and on Twitter @bronwynhinz

Here is her report  Schooling Federalism: Evaluating the Options for Reform

Listen to Bronwyn discussing her report on Radio National

News report  about the leaked Green Paper “options”.