Matthew Sinclair

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

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.

School funding: Is this Australia’s most important moment for reform?

School funding policy burst back onto the national agenda last Tuesday. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare announced a ‘statement of intent’ had been signed with Western Australia to fully fund the state’s public schools by 2026.

This language is important. A statement of intent is not  a signed, five-year, bilateral funding agreement. There is still much water to go under the bridge.

Yet, on face value, the announcement is good news. It signals the federal government’s intention to boost overall funding for public schools in WA by an extra $777.4 million over five years. In doing so, lifting its share of public school funding from 20 percent to 22.5 percent. Importantly, priority is also given to the state’s most disadvantaged public schools to ensure they are the first to receive the new funding.

As part of the deal, the WA government committed to providing at least an equivalent amount over this period, or 77.5% of the SRS, bringing total additional investment in public schools to $1.6 billion.

In theory at least, this will bring all WA schools regardless of sector up to 100% of the Student Resource Standard by 2026, in school funding policy terms, a quick turnaround.

So why was WA the first cab off the rank?

A review of the annual reporting of states and territories concerning their bilateral funding agreements shows that in 2018, WA actually funded schools at 104% of the SRS, with the WA state government providing 84.43% of the SRS in addition to the federal government’s 20% contribution. From 2019, each year, WA has incrementally dropped its funding to the plateau in 2021, 2022 and 2023 of 75%.

In short, for the federal government to achieve a much needed political and public victory concerning school funding, WA was low hanging fruit. It was sitting on 95% of the SRS in 2023, and only years before schools had been funded in excess of 100%.

WA is also in strong budgetary position vis a vis the other states and territories with a $3.7 billion net operating budget surplus now forecast for 2023‑24.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, included in the signed statement of intent was a no-disadvantage clause. This means the WA will net hundreds of millions more for education if the Eastern states secure a higher share.

Judging from the initial reaction from some eastern seaboard states, who rejected outright the federal government’s 2.5% increase in funding, Minster Clare faces a rocky negotiation path ahead.

Don’t get too excited

There’s a lot we don’t know. And a lot to worry about if history repeats itself. Our school funding history in relation to equity and needs-based funding is not reassuring.

Minister Clare obviously hopes that the WA agreement will set the scene for other state and territory agreements. He wants all parties to negotiate in good faith and with noble purpose.

But the much-travelled path of federal/state school funding negotiations is littered with disagreements —protracted and fierce. Their results have seldom been fair let alone noble. 

At this stage Victoria and Queensland are not agreeing to 22.5. In equally good faith they are pushing for 25% funding from the federal government.

The Australian Education Union concurs. Its Every school. Every child campaign has long made this clear. It also asks for 40% for the NT where public schools are in dire straits.

Funding war?

Some observers are foreshadowing another ‘funding war’. The exact strategies and tactics of the combatants remain to be seen. Or not. Wider publics are seldom privy to manoeuvres behind-the-scenes. 

The usual funding wars also involve the private schools. Independents, Catholics, the federal government and the states/territories all go into battle for self-interest.

These current negotiations are focused on  the needs-based funding of public schools. Yet Private schools may still enter the funding fray. They always have. 

Currently, for all schools, the SRS is topped up with ‘equity loadings’. We don’t yet know how these will be built into these new funding arrangements. 

There is also the 4% depreciation and other costs loophole that allows the states and territories to reduce their funding in real times. Without its removal, WA Public schools will receive 96% of the SRS rather than the suggested 100%. 

Will disadvantaged schools, with time poor teachers, be given additional support to claim such loadings.  

This federal money is to be tied to various ‘practical reforms’. The Improving Outcomes for All review is the touchstone. These reforms will, in the Minister’s words, ‘help children to keep up, catch up and finish school’.  

But we don’t yet know how these reforms will be rolled out. We don’t know how they will be devised and evaluated, or the assessment and accountability mechanisms involved. 

It is not clear if the Commonwealth has any claw back mechanisms if the states/territories don’t measure up.

Commonwealth accountability mechanisms are notoriously complex, obscure and unhelpful. Danger lurks here.  

Matters to keep in mind

These recent WA developments are an important starting point for the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) and the new bilateral funding agreements to be negotiated this year.

But, while the haggling over the percentage of government contributions toward the SRS continues, we urge all parties to keep in mind that the SRS represents the minimum standard of funding needed to meet the educational needs of students. 

The WA negotiations have also signalled the federal government’s capacity to move beyond the arbitrarily imposed 80/20% funding split that has shaped federal funding reform since 2017.

This is an important development. It demonstrates there is no constitutional or legislative reason why it can’t move beyond the 22.5% it agreed to on Tuesday, toward the 25% sought by other states.  

We also suggest that substantially strengthened transparency measures be built into the new NSRA and bilateral funding agreements.

Invisibility of funding data

At present, publicly available and easily comprehensible information on how money is spent by governments, and then allocated by schooling sectors is limited. Gaps exist in the visibility of funding data. This is especially problematic given that SRS funding from the federal government is not directly sent to all schools, but redistributed in line with state and sector-based funding models.

These gaps are even more worrisome when considered in relation to the additional government money allocated to priority equity groups (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with disability, students with socio-educational disadvantage, students with low English proficiency, small schools and schools in regional and remote locations).

On this, a 2023 Productivity Commission report established that there is ‘no publicly available data on school-level spending on students’ from these cohorts.

Bolster accountability

Enhanced transparency mechanisms would serve to curtail any potential ‘accounting loopholes’ or cost shifting that have historically beset funding agreements. They would also bolster accountability and enforceability in line with the needs-based principles of the SRS which should remain a central focus of any future funding reform.

There is much at stake for public schools and their students, teachers, and leaders around Australia in the coming months as the school funding negotiations ramp up.

Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His research and teaching focuses on education policy, school funding, globalisation, education futures, and equity in schooling.

Jason Clare, Federal Minister for Education

Elisa Di Gregorio is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research focus is the sociology of education policy, with a particular interest in articulations of equity in school funding policy.

This budget wreaks havoc on education – with one miraculous exception

There were zero mentions of universities, schools or teachers in the 30-minute federal budget speech made by Treasurer Jim Chalmers Tuesday night.

This set the trend for a disappointing 2023-24 federal budget for much of the education sector. Chalmers, via his words and actions, refused to fund schools and universities in a way that made them a defining policy for the early years of the Albanese government. Universities, schools, and teachers might have expected more given the Labor Party delivered a budget surplus of $4.2 billion (the first in 15 years) and the mounting challenges facing higher education and schooling now and into the future. Chalmers and Education Minister Jason Clare will argue there are currently ongoing national reviews throughout this year into early childhood education, school education, teacher education (again) and the higher education sector and that before any large-scale funding reform can begin, these processes will need to be completed. Chalmers would also point to his strong support for the TAFE and foundation skills sectors in both his speech and budget from 2024 onwards. 

That may well be the case but I ask: can overworked and under-resourced staff across the education sector wait that long for adequate resourcing and support to do their jobs? The teacher shortage in many schools has reached a crisis level, infrastructure and maintenance issues continue in many – mostly public schools – and the cost of living is hitting education sector workers hard. Yet Chalmers could not manage to mention any of these education issues in his almost 4000 words to parliament. The budget itself followed a similar path although there were some positives. Chalmers’ speech and budget policy concerning schooling in particular is a stark contrast to the last time the federal ALP came to power in 2007 promising an ‘education revolution’, and this raises concerns for what is to come later this year and through 2024 and beyond.

So what is in the budget for universities and TAFEs?

New announcements for the higher education sector were few and far between on Tuesday night. This was not necessarily unexpected given the ongoing Australian Universities Accord review into the higher education sector. That said, the alarming and dark trend of no new support for university research continues—although the ALP did manage to find $159 million over four years for politicians’ electoral staff. 

As Universities Australia point out: funding for university research has now fallen to its lowest level measured against gross domestic product (GDP). Furthermore, there was no new funding from the federal government to support university sector employees. This speaks to the importance of the work the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is doing and has done (with those who have a deal in place) with universities nationwide to reach fair Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBA). Elsewhere, and unfortunately for our students, indexation on university Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) loans will rise to 7.1 per cent in June 2023, adding to the debt burden students will have to repay in an already formidable economic context marred by high inflation and a housing and rental crisis. 

On a more positive note, the budget provides $128.5 million to deliver 4,000 new Commonwealth Supported Places to universities in 2023 and 2024 that focus on STEM disciplines (nothing new). There is also a welcome $17.7 million over four years for the Disability Support Program to assist universities to better enable students with disability to access, participate and succeed in higher education. And there is an overdue increase in income support payments for university students struggling with financial pressures although they needed to go further than the 15% increase in rent assistance and a $40 increase per fortnight for AusStudy and AbStudy. The review into the higher education sector led by Professor Mary O’Kane will provide its interim report in June and its final report in December of this year. The focus, therefore, on university funding and reform will ramp up in the second half of this year and into 2024. 

The TAFE and foundation skills sectors received strong support in the budget. Chalmers even mentioned them directly in his speech to the nation. There was an additional $3.7 billion for the five-year National Skills Agreement, which is set to begin in January 2024, pending the ongoing negotiations with the states and territories. Under this agreement, there will be 300,000 new fee-free TAFE and VET places available. There is also $436 million to improve foundational language, numeracy, and digital skills of Australians aged over 15. The budget also provides $25.1 million to extend the existing Women in STEM Cadetships and Advanced Apprenticeships program through to 2026-27. 

Skills and training are clearly a policy priority for the Albanese government given Chalmers’ comments on budget evening and the fact they will spend $12.8 billion over five years from 2024—subject to the agreement of the new National Skills Agreement. The contrast in the government’s public and policy approach to skills and training to that of the universities and schools may be a sign of things to come. 

What does the budget do for schools and early childhood education?  

Schools and early childhood education received some useful support—although much more comprehensive assistance was required. The budget provides an additional $9.3 million to help attract, train and retain school teachers as part of the implementation of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan announced in the October 2022 budget. A further $72.4 million is available to support the skills and training of workers in the early childhood education and care sector aswell as $18 million in funding for grants to establish new centre based long day care or family day care services. There is also $92.8 million to support First Nations education programs over the next four years. While this support for First Nation students is important, Dr. Tracy Woodroffe emphasises the need to concentrate on improving the education system as a whole. For central Australian schools, the federal government delivers $40.4 million over the next two financial years to improve school attendance, engagement and learning outcomes for students.

A deep dive into the Department of Education’s budget statements shows the Albanese Government plans to allocate $17.4 billion to non-government schools, which enrol 34% of all Australian students, in the upcoming financial year. In contrast, public schools, which enrol 66% of all Australian students, will receive just $10.8 billion in recurrent funding for the same period. This is the result of the current funding arrangement in which the federal government provides 80% of all recurrent funding to non-government schools and 20% to public schools. The imbalance in the federal funding of the school sectors highlights one of many structural issues facing the Australian education system that must be a focus of the next National School Reform Agreement to be signed in 2024. Interestingly, the Department for Education budget papers flag a focus on strengthening the policy and financial assurance and compliance of non-government schools to ensure they are using funding appropriately for school education. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of this new policy in the coming months and years.

Since the budget was released on Tuesday night, I have had discussions with school leaders from challenging public school contexts. They have emphasised to me the urgent need for significantly more funding to attract and retain teachers, upgrade and maintain infrastructure, and compensate pre-service teachers for their professional placements, which are currently unpaid. Although the budget provided some additional funding to address the teacher shortage, it ignored the other two concerns. On top of this, the funding allocated for the former was deemed insufficient given the size and immediacy of the challenge. The current Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System led by Dr Lisa O’Brien provides the opportunity to again raise these concerns with the Albanese government in time for the next National School Reform Agreement in 2024.   


The 2023-24 budget could have done more for universities and schools. Money has flowed into the federal government treasury at unexpected speed compared to budget forecasts, thanks to increased mining commodity prices, high taxes, and low unemployment.

In contrast, the education sector’s employees have never had it tougher with increased workloads, staff shortages, high inflation, and the cost of living, just to name a few of the challenges.

Chalmers and his team could have supported the education sector more holistically by:

  • Increasing funding for university-based education research.
  • Matching the 15% pay increase for aged-care workers for all education employees
  • Adding significantly more funding on top of what has already been allocated to train, attract, and retain teachers in public schools that face staffing challenges.
  • Delivering much-needed increases in funding for infrastructure and maintenance in public schools that lack private fundraising capability.
  • Providing funding for paid placements for pre-service teachers in public schools facing staffing shortages
  • Delivering a larger increase in the cost-of-living payments for university students.

 Looking ahead

Looking ahead, next year’s federal budget looms as a defining one for the education sector and the Albanese government. The National School Reform Agreement will be signed off in 2024 and the four national reviews underway will have handed down their recommendations and reports to the government. Watch this space.  

Dr. Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His research and teaching focuses on education policy, school funding, globalisation, education futures, and equity in schooling.