Doubling down on funding negotiations

More than a decade after governments determined the funding benchmark for a child to succeed at school as part of the original Gonski agreement, 98 per cent of public schools remain underfunded.

Click to enlarge

Funding arrangements that will determine resourcing levels for students and working conditions of teachers are currently being negotiated between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

Analysis of bilateral funding agreements value the true Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) shortfall of public schools at $6.6 billion. For NSW schools, the gap is estimated at being $1.9 billion.

Recently released data from the Productivity Commission shows public school funding increased by 20.3 per cent (or 2 per cent per year) in real terms between 2012–13 and 2021–22, yet over the same period private school funding from governments increased by 37 per cent.

This is despite public schools educating the vast majority of students with higher needs, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, rural and remote areas, students with a disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

In the final weeks of the 2022 school year, federal Education Minister Jason Clare announced a one-year extension of current school funding agreements. In doing so, he also announced the commissioning of an independent expert panel that would spend the next year examining what future reform agreements require.

The Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System’s expert panel handed down its findings and recommendations on 11 December 2023, confirming the chronic underfunding of public schools and highlighting an urgent need for governments to act in order to close achievement gaps, improve the wellbeing of students and address growing teacher workload and staffing shortages.

The panel’s report described the need to fully fund public schools as “urgent and critical” and stated full funding was a precondition for improving results, equity and student wellbeing.

The report states that “all jurisdictions should fully fund schools within a comparable timeframe” and the issue is all the more urgent “because of the full funding arrangements that already exist in the non-government sector”.

FUNDING LOOPHOLE MUST BE CLOSED
The Australian Education Union also wants the new round of funding deals to close a Morrison government-era loophole that has shortchanged recurrent funding by 4 per cent. Nationwide, parliamentary records indicate the value of the 4 per cent loophole was $2.09 billion in 2023 alone.

The current NSW bilateral funding agreement allows the NSW Government to include non-recurrent costs of up to 4 per cent to determine its SRS contributions. Last year this loophole allowed $640 million to be diverted away from recurrent funding.

In Opposition, federal Labor’s then education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek said in reference to the discounting of the SRS: “Labor remains concerned about this, and in government, it’s something we would deal with in future school funding agreements.”

WHERE DOES THE NSW GOVERNMENT STAND ON THE FULL FUNDING OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
In January 2023, in the lead up to the NSW election, Labor’s Chris Minns and Prue Car announced an “education future fund” aimed at lifting the state’s contribution towards the SRS to 75 per cent by 2025, two years earlier than the commitment made by the then Coalition government.

Since the election, the NSW and federal education ministers have made public statements committing to the full funding of public schools.

The NSW Government is publicly lobbying the Commonwealth to increase its SRS contribution to 25 per cent in order to reach a combined total of 100 per cent by 2029.

Meanwhile, NSW public schools have missed out on $1.9 billion in SRS funding this year alone.

BATTLELINES DRAWN
The NSW Government’s submission to the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System stated: “The Panel should note that NSW is committed to funding all NSW schools and systems at 100 per cent of the SRS by 2029, to ensure they receive the minimum funding required to meet their students’ educational needs.”

Car has since warned the Federal Government that its funding offer will “shortchange” NSW kids.

Minister Car is not alone, enjoying the strong support of the Premier, who has called on the Commonwealth and its “deeper pockets” to commit to lifting its contribution from its offer of 22.5 per cent to 25 per cent.

NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey has also said he’ll be “going hard” when it comes to negotiations with the Commonwealth.

STATEMENTS OF INTENT SIGNED FOR WA AND NT

Click to enlarge

On 31 January, the federal Education Minister signed a “statement of intent” with the Western Australian Government that would result in public schools in the West being funded to 100 per cent of the SRS by 2026.

The deal will result in $777.4 million delivered to Western Australian schools over five years.

Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe described the WA deal as an important “first step” rather than a “final agreement”, highlighting the ongoing shortfall created by including non-recurrent funding in the composition of the SRS.

“We applaud the commitment by the federal Education Minister Jason Clare and the WA government to get schools to 100 per cent of the SRS by 2026. However, [the] agreement will only see WA public schools reach 96 per cent of the SRS,” she said.

“WA’s SRS funding share is artificially inflated by 4 per cent through the inclusion of costs not directly related to the education of students in schools, such as capital depreciation, transport and regulatory costs. That 4 per cent of the SRS was worth $230 million for WA in 2023 and that money still needs to be delivered to WA public schools before schools are truly funded at 100 per cent of the SRS,” Ms Haythorpe also said.

On 13 March, it was announced that the Commonwealth would provide the Northern Territory with 40 per cent of the SRS in order to reach 100 per cent by 2029.

The Commonwealth’s increased contribution is much needed given the shameful reality that currently NT public schools receive the lowest proportion of SRS funding, despite having the highest levels of student need.

The final NT-Commonwealth agreement must also address the non-classroom related spending funding loophole that cost NT kids $40 million in 2023.

United front

Calls from the teaching profession on the Albanese Government to urgently invest in public schools are being echoed by politicians, principals, parents and community groups:

PRUE CAR, NSW DEPUTY PREMIER, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION
In an opinion piece penned for the Daily Telegraph on 1 February, she declared she “will be fighting for every dollar and cent” and “The Commonwealth needs to put more money on the table because what they are offering will shortchange your child’s education”.

DANIEL MOOKHEY, NSW TREASURER
On 13 March, Treasurer Daniel Mookhey stated he would be “doubling down” on negotiations with the Commonwealth. Reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, he stated: “when it comes to negotiating the national schools reform agreement, we are going hard.”

CHRIS MINNS, NSW PREMIER
Not to let the Prime Minister off the hook, he called on the “deep pockets” of the Commonwealth to help deliver urgent funding to NSW schools. “We need the Commonwealth Government to up their contributions to public school funding … when it comes to agreements between the State and the Commonwealth the full Gonski amount from the Commonwealth Government needs to be supplied and the reason for that is they have deeper pockets.”

YVONNE HILSZ, PRESIDENT, P&C FEDERATION NSW
“Our P&C Associations across NSW represent thousands of dedicated, hardworking volunteers. Our P&Cs are made up of parents who give time, resources and raise funds to fill in the gap left by government underfunding. With 98 per cent of public schools … underfunded, covering a 5 per cent gap with 2.5 per cent is unacceptable.”

ROBYN EVANS, PRESIDENT, NSW PRIMARY PRINCIPALS’ ASSOCIATION
“Now is the time to fully fund public schools, so they can be resourced with the teachers and specialist support staff required to meet students’ needs. Our students deserve it.”

CRAIG PETERSEN, PRESIDENT, NSW SECONDARY PRINCIPALS’ COUNCIL
“There’s an urgent need to address the increasing segregation within our society, to ensure that every child and their family has the best opportunity to reach their potential. Only when we fully fund public schools will we realise the benefits for the entire nation.”

RAYMOND INGREY, INTERIM PRESIDENT, NSW ABORIGINAL EDUCATION CONSULTATIVE GROUP
“We have a real opportunity to make change for Aboriginal children and their families across NSW through a number of national agreements. We encourage public education to be fully resourced to ensure that we close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.”

MICHELE O’NEIL, PRESIDENT, AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF TRADE UNIONS
“Full funding of public schools is a nation-building investment that will not only improve the education of children across the country but deliver long-term social and economic benefits that far outweigh the cost. Full funding of public schools would be life-changing, it would mean more support for children who fall behind, it would give teachers more help inside the classroom to deal with the diverse needs of students. It would also make workloads more manageable which will go a long way in stopping good teachers leaving the profession and attracting more people to become teachers.”