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Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 24 Mar 2011

Second Reading speech of Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia)

(9.50 am)—I rise today to speak on the Schools Assistance Amendment (Financial Assistance) Bill 2011 and highlight first up that the Greens will not be supporting this piece of legislation. This bill provides for the existing federal funding system for non-government schools to be extended for a further year until the end of 2013.

It is the implementation of the announcement made by the Prime Minister during the election campaign last year. I said at that time that this bill adds yet another year to the growing delay in tackling the inequities in Australia’s school funding system. It means that any reform of the current system will not be implemented until at least 2014, over six years since the ALP government was first elected in 2007.

The government accepts that the SES system is flawed, yet we have seen an extension of this flawed system for a further six years when it did not necessarily have to be that way. The current SES funding system was introduced by the Howard government in 2001. The model links the residential addresses of students enrolled at a school to the census data to produce a socioeconomic profile of the school community and its ability to support the school. Under the SES model, funding is allocated according to the socioeconomic status of the community that the school is located in. A school’s SES score determines its per student general recurrent funding rate as a percentage of the average government school recurrent cost, ensuring increases in funding to public schools are passed on to non-government schools. That, of course, is the flaw in the system.

The current model has been acknowledged to be flawed and unfair by public school advocates, educational academics, the government—of course, when they were in opposition; we have seen very little direct criticism since they came into government—and an internal report on the model commissioned by the opposition when they were in government. There has been acknowledgement from all sides of politics that this system is fundamentally flawed, yet what we have seen year after year is an extension of what is a fundamentally flawed and unfair system. The fact is that this government initiated a review into funding for schools in the acknowledgement that the current model needs reform. What is the reform going to be? We should have had the reform take place long before now. After the last election, we should have been in this place this year with at least something substantial to debate and to take forward.

The flaws in the current system were summed up well by the Prime Minister herself when she was opposition spokesperson for education. In a speech in 2000 she identified five flaws, all of which remain relevant to the model her government is now extending. Firstly, the model proceeds on the basis of the average government schools cost figure; therefore, funding to non-government schools increases when funding to public schools increases. She said: … this model uses only some aspects of the census data— I remind you that these are the criticisms put forward by the Prime Minister herself of the very same model which she is now advocating we extend— … the model may lose veracity the more geographically dispersed the students of a particular school are. … the model may lose veracity in highly differentiated areas where wealth and poverty live cheek by jowl. … the model makes no allowance for the amassed resources of any particular school … This is a gaping flaw, one which the government would not allow to emerge in any other benefit distribution system.

They are the flaws identified by the current Prime Minister when, as I remind people, she was the opposition spokesperson for education.

Fundamentally, the problem with the SES model is that the formula to provide the funding has never been applied as intended because of the funding guarantee provisions. These provisions see about half of Australia’s non-government schools receiving more funding than they would be entitled to if the SES formula were strictly applied. By guaranteeing this level of overpayment for the next four years, non-government schools will have certainty and additional funding, while public schools will have no certainty. We know that there is in an increasing growth in the gap. Unfortunately, just like in 2008, this piece of legislation is simply extending the problem.

In 2006, under the Howard government, an internal review of the funding system found that funding guarantees delivered schools more than $2.7 billion above their SES entitlements and entrenched historical inequities.

That review found a fundamental flaw under Senator Mason’s own past government. Now we see this government, a Labor government that is meant to be committed to public education, continuing this flawed system. The review said: The consistency and equity of the SES funding arrangements is undermined by the fact that almost half the nongovernment school sector is funded outside the straight SES model.

This funding model does not work. All sides of politics have accepted this, yet what we see again is more legislation simply to extend a flawed, unfair, broken funding model. In government not only did the Labor Party keep the inequitable Howard model for another quadrennium of funding from 2008; it is now extending it for another year. We know it is flawed; everyone has said that. Everyone knows that the evidence shows that the system does not work, that it is unfair, that it is inequitable and that it needs to be fixed. Yet, because of the lack of courage in this place of both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, we see very little will to move and get it fixed.

The Greens however have always stayed consistent in their view that this current model for funding non-government schools requires fundamental change and that public education must be central to any new funding model. In 2008 in the debate on the legislation for the current quadrennium of funding to non-government schools, Senator Milne, the then Greens spokesperson on education, moved amendments to limit the funding to two years, until 2011. That is this year. We could have been dealing with the issues this year. We talk about the need to give certainty to schools. We talk about the need to ensure we fix the system and deal with the issues of inequity, yet in 2008 the Greens moved amendments to say, ‘Let’s by at least 2011 get it fixed and get moving.’ The government of the day and the current government did not want to do that and, of course, neither did the coalition.

It was the Greens’ belief that the review promised by the Labor Party prior to the 2007 election should be undertaken in two years from 2008 and a new funding formula developed by the time of the 2010 election.

We wanted to be able to give schools, teachers, parents and students the certainty of what their schools would look like and of what resources and funding they would receive. We wanted to be able to ensure that schools, teachers, parents and students had that certainty before the last election. That is why we moved the amendments that we did back in 2008. But of course, no, no, no: neither major party wants to actually deal with the issue at hand. They would prefer to defer, defer, defer and continue an unfair, inequitable system—all critiqued, of course, by their own reviews and party policies.

Instead, it is likely that the Australian community will go through two elections before the government has the courage to implement a new model for Commonwealth funding of non-government schools. We continue to keep rolling it into the next election cycle, and we know what happens when both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party get into election cycles: they go absolutely weak at the knees when it comes to the need for reform. The continual delay in biting the bullet of real funding reform for education does not reflect well on this government at all. The report of the review of school funding is due to be given to the government by the end of 2011. I will be moving a second reading amendment calling on the government to respond to the review of funding for schools before then, ensuring that by 2012 the public schools, teachers, parents and students will understand what the government’s plan is, what they will actually do once this review has been completed.

Let’s not go to the next election with this view that we do not have to tell people what is going on. We do not have to commit to public education. We do not have to commit to fixing the system. We do not have to commit to ensuring that we agree that there is inequity and we will do something about it. Let us know what your plan is going to be before the next election. My second reading amendment does exactly that. We know that big parties gang up on this particular issue. They say, ‘Oh no, we can’t talk about school funding, can’t reform the system; we know it’s unfair but we don’t want to touch it.’ The major parties will gang up. They will vote for it. The Greens will be the sole voice for public education in this place, come a couple of hours, and we will vote against the legislation. The legislation will pass, but at least let us have a commitment from the government that they will put their plan on the table so that we know—and the public knows, the teachers know, the parents know and the students know— what your plan is before the next election. Let’s not see another delay, delay, delay because it is all too difficult.

The Greens look forward, as this review is carried out, to a constructive debate on school funding as a result of this focused time to consider the flaws in the system. However, we do not resile from our position that the current model is fundamentally flawed and neither should the government. I have already read out the Prime Minister’s own critique of the system. Let’s not forget that it has not changed because it has been extended time after time after time. It is still as flawed as it was when it was first introduced under the Howard government. Let’s not pretend that this system can keep going the way it is. It needs root and branch reform.

The Greens are committed to ensuring public education is the priority for any new Commonwealth funding system. We want to see a public school system that sets the standard of education in this country. Any child wherever they are—whether they live in the city, in the suburbs, in the bush—should be able to access the best quality education. That means the public education system has to set the benchmark. In order to do that, more money is going to have to go towards public schools. We have to fix the funding system to make that happen. Every child in this country deserves the right to the best quality education possible and that can only happen if the only system that accepts all students on whatever basis, regardless of their geographical location or parental income, household resources or their socioeconomic status—that means the public education system—sets the standard for what good quality education means in this country. That should be the basis of this reform. That must be the basis of this reform.

We have a Prime Minister who says that she is the education Prime Minister. Let’s see her put her money where her mouth is. Let’s see the Prime Minister accept that this system is fundamentally flawed. It undermines the educational standards that kids in Australia should be able to expect from their education system every day. If Julia Gillard truly is the education

Prime Minister, she will invest and ensure that the public education system sets the standards so no child in this country is left behind.

We understand that this legislation will pass the Senate. I reiterate that the Greens do not support the extension of a flawed system. It is flawed by everybody’s understanding, everybody’s critique of the way it is currently working. The Greens will not accept that, just because it might be too hard for some, we should not tackle the issue at large. To ensure that the government has to put its plan squarely on the table by 2012, before the next election, I move:

At the end of the motion, add: but the Senate is of the opinion that the Government should respond to the Review of Funding for Schooling, chaired by David Gonski AC, by March 2012, fully outlining the Government’s plans for Commonwealth funding for government and non-government schools.



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