Champions for fair funding will always be needed

Adequate funding for the public education system is an enduring challenge, consistently requiring the attention of the teaching profession, lest governments be emboldened to spend even less.

Indeed, public education funding was discussed at Federation’s first annual conference in 1919. Effective class sizes, sufficient teaching resources and decent facilities required money then, as they still do in 2024. So, for more than a century, Federation members have devoted their time and energy to challenging deep cuts and advocating for fair funding.

A determining factor in the quantum of public education funding has been governments subsidising private schools with recurrent and capital funding, which dilutes the funds available for public schools.

State aid to all private schools ceased two years after the Public Instruction Act in 1882, but private school communities set to work to reverse that decision.

At annual conference and other forums in the ’30s and ’40s members discussed strategies to ensure public schools would receive federal funding and oppose state aid for private schools.

Handwritten petitions drew media attention to the need for federal funding for more buildings and teachers. In 1958, federal opposition leader Dr Evatt was presented with 130,000 signatures. Federation was a sponsor of a national education conference in 1960, which initiated a nationwide petition to federal parliament asking for an immediate emergency grant to the states and territories for education and a national committee of inquiry into the needs of primary, secondary and technical education. After first declining to receive a delegation from the conference’s representatives, Prime Minister Robert Menzies met with a small group to receive 30 bundles of signatures. Education 31 May 1961 commented: “There can be no doubt that his change of attitude was the outcome of several recent political developments. Support for the petition has been very strong, and its organisers had been able to tell Mr Menzies that more than 240,000 electors had signed it.” An election year, the federal opposition indicated its support for the petition’s requests.

The union’s first statewide strike in 1968 was in response to understaffed and poorly equipped schools, again requiring more money. The resulting political pressure led the then education minister to promise an additional $1 million for expenditure on schools.

Amid growing concern that politicians were prepared to fund state aid to non-state schools in order to buy votes, nearly 4000 people attended a state aid protest meeting at Sydney Town Hall in August 1969, with the overflowing crowd accommodated at Federation’s headquarters. A speaker said the purpose of the Public Instruction Act 1880 was for “equal opportunity for all children, however, with the population explosion…and the provision of state aid, the state school system is dying a slow strangulation.”

By the end of the ’60s, due to pressure from Catholic leaders and parishioners, the Coalition government was providing financial assistance for non-government schools; Labor’s support soon followed. Ever since, state aid has continued to be provided to private schools, at the expense of quality public provision and equity.

In 1973, Federation made a submission to the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, established to examine schools’ needs and how to meet them. Members sought the support of parents and local organisations for the Committee’s recommendations to be implemented in 1974. Capital grants for buildings, science labs and libraries, disadvantaged schools, schools for the handicapped and other programs from the Commonwealth were forthcoming. Federation interrogated the NSW government for absorbing the federal grants and reducing its own spending.

Federation members, parents and students held a massive rally in Sydney’s domain on 17 August 1988 to oppose cuts to school and TAFE systems, announced by the Greiner/Metherell governments.

Recommendations in the Greiner/Metherell-commissioned Schools Renewal report by management consultant Brian Scott (1989) were code for devolution: government cost cutting while shifting responsibility to schools and teachers by removing system supports. “In terms of evaluation, five years after the Scott changes had been unleashed, little of academic merit existed,” wrote Denis Fitzgerald in Teachers and their times: History and the Teachers Federation.

Member action left Metherell’s position as the minister untenable; at the next election the Coalition became a minority government.

The Howard government suggested the Commonwealth government had greater responsibility for private schools than public schools. Members demonstrated against the Howard government’s Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment policy, which came into effect in 1998, directly taking money out of public education and delivering it to private schools.

Our 2006 Cornerstones Conference was an opportunity to raise the public’s consciousness about the need for additional government investment in public education. The communique stated: “Governments must support and invest a greater share of our national’s resources in the most precious of all national assets — the public education of our children and fellow citizens.”

Federation used Public Education Day celebrations to campaign for public education funding. As guest speaker at a Public Education Day event in 2007, academic Lyndsay Connors said that in the previous decade the Commonwealth government had distanced itself from responsibility for the nation’s public schools.

“It has attempted to create in the public’s mind the misleading perception of a separation of powers between the Commonwealth and the states for public and for private schools; a separation for which there is no Constitutional, educational or logical grounds.”

Campaigning by Federation and other Australian Education Union branches led the Labor government to announce a review into the school funding formula for recurrent funding. Three Federation Public Schools for the Future campaign vans travelled the state in late 2010 to encourage teachers, parents and community members to make submissions.

Our submission to the Review of Funding for Schooling included the following statements about capital:

  • NSW still has many public schools with aging buildings unsuited for the teaching and learning methods expected today
  • Many teachers are still teaching and students are still learning in substandard conditions
  • Public schools receiving the least investment on their buildings is a national disgrace.

Federation members rejoiced when the Gonski report recommended a needs-based recurrent funding model, which would swing funding back to the public system. Federation members supported the Australian Education Union’s I Give a Gonski campaign, pressuring the Labor government to adopt recommendations from the Gonski report. The NSW and federal government signed a six-year funding deal, but sadly the incoming Coalition government did not honour it, instead swinging funding to the point where the Commonwealth capped funding to public schools at 20 per cent, but private schools received 80 per cent.

Since then, Federation members have supported the Australian Education Union’s Fair Funding Now, Every School Every Child and For Every Child campaigns to change the course of education funding, so that all public schools are funded at 100 per cent of the Schooling Resourcing Standard.

The Centre for Public Education Research, funded by Federation, held a conference in Sydney in 2022, to keep funding on the political agenda ahead of the federal election.

In 2023, Federation asked Labor colleagues Federal Education Minister Jason Clare and NSW Education Minister Prue Car to sign a “deed of trust”, stating: “We are committed to ensuring every NSW public school is on a path to reach 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard — the fair funding level.”

Research reports have attracted media attention and furthered the public’s understanding of the funding needs of public schools. Ending the capital funding divide in Australian schools (2024) was released on the day state and federal education ministers were to meet to discuss school funding.

Federation members continue to lobby for the funding needed to ensure students reach their potential.