BY MICHAEL FURTADO
Catholic school funding is one of the issues on which policy differences in Australia have been wedged since Federation. Prior to that time most schools were denominational and received funds in proportion to denominational size.
The move to federation and the imperative to create a national identity was predicated on forming a school system that was uniquely Australian and therefore resolved to mend the religious clefts that stood in the way of developing a unified Australian nation.
The only school system to ‘go it alone’ was Catholic. Deprived of public funds, the Bishops turned to home-grown and missionary congregations to fill the teacher gap, always for a pittance in salaries and stipends and in return for fees.
Therein lies a central feature of the character of Australian Catholic schooling, for in no other country of equivalent size (except for the US where they are dwindling) are Catholic schools private and fee-reliant, the Catholic schools question having been resolved through resort to various forms of integration into a fully-funded Catholic public education school provision service.
The commencement of state-aid, resisted by state school forces, finally eventuated when the Whitlam Government, tired of Labor being consigned to the Opposition benches for nigh on a quarter-century on this question, finally accepted state-aid and commissioned Professor Peter Karmel to bring down recommendations for the public funding of all schools, both public and private, on the basis of need.
Given that state-schools are fully funded by the state, a loophole was found in the Constitution permitting the Commonwealth to fund all schools and a period of nearly forty years of peace ensued in the state-aid battle.
Policy tweaking of that model has proven inadequate to meet changing contextual needs, no more relating to the nation-state but locked into competing globally and inexorably shifting education from a social policy expenditure site to an economic one in which schooling and job-readiness take central place in the assessment of successful school outcomes.
In this shift, new and sharp divisions have appeared between neoliberals and welfarists that are beyond the capacity of the current funding model to resolve and which privilege the individual entitlements of students above systemic imperatives.
The most vulnerable sector in this debate are Catholic schools, which, constructed as private schools as a result of our history, are now forced to confront the problems of a corporatist rich-and-poor school alliance consisting mainly of systemic schools operated by the dioceses and a few religious congregations and some Catholic independent schools in order to enter the new free-market economy in which schools compete with one another for funding and results.
At stake here for the Church is a fear of identity loss, but in a day and age in which there are arguably several Catholic charisms and identities, the insistence on unity may well hide a stubborn tradition of going it alone and which in the past fifty years has encouraged resort to a kind of DLP-inflected sectarian politics, particularly before elections, on the school funding front. And so to Gonski!
The long-awaited Gonski Review into school funding holds out many promises and challenges for Catholic schools. Firstly, it represents a challenge to the vast separate bureaucracy of Catholic Education – devolved from individual diocesan and order-owned systems to State and Territory Commissions to the National Catholic Education Commission – to streamline their operations in order to release a bigger share of the education funding dollar to students in schools.
Secondly, it holds out the possibility that some Catholic schools, especially those increasing their intake of disabled, low-SES, Indigenous and rural and remote students, will be completely fee-free.
While it promises base-funding for every Australian student all funding will be allocated according to a student-resource standard, with loadings relating to only the above categories. This will reduce the role of block funding and may help explain the spate of pusillanimous press releases from the National Catholic Education Commission and various Catholic Education Commissions in recent weeks.
Given that $5 billion will need to be found to effect the changes at a time when governments of all kinds are committed to balancing the budget, chances are that this will eventuate gradually and through intrasystemic redistribution in favour of the disadvantaged.
How this is done will be as critical as what is, since such arrangements will kick in from the 2014 quadrennium. It is to be hoped that public forums will not be used to bring out the parent vote but instead to advance the common good, which after all, is what Catholic education is supposed to serve.
Michael Furtado was Education Officer (Social Justice), Brisbane Catholic Education. His PhD was in the funding of Catholic schools.
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