Subject: Schools funding arrangements

Kim Landers: With education funding the new battleground in the tussle between the Federal Government and the states and territories, I’m joined from Adelaide by the Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Kim, great to be with you.

Kim Landers: Can you give me an example of why the Federal Government should end its involvement in public schools, but continue funding private and Catholic schools?

Simon Birmingham: Well Kim it’s important to appreciate the historical context here, and that is that the Federal Government has since the Menzies era been the dominant government funder of the non-government schools sector, yet the states and territories are still overwhelmingly the funders of government schools. The Federal Government in fact on a per-student basis, according to the last report on government services, contributes only about 13 per cent of the cost to government schools. Yet we actually of course have these agreements in place that are highly bureaucratic, that don’t actually though give the Federal Government any say in how that is actually utilised. Now let’s bring it right back to if you are a mum or a dad and you’re concerned about how your school is run or how much funding your school gets, we seem to be increasingly entering a world where the responsibility of whether you should complain to your state minister of the federal minister is blurred. Now I don’t think that’s helpful for parents or for accountability in the system. Far far better for those parents to know that 100 per cent of the funding decisions, 100 per cent of the administrative decisions come from one single level of government, and that level of government is accountable for what happens in their school.

Kim Landers: But doesn’t this lead to the perception that the Federal Government at least would be seen to be supporting students perhaps from wealthier families who are sending their children to private schools while not supporting the students and the families and the parents of those who can only send their student, their children to the public sector?

Simon Birmingham: So families who make the choice to opt out of the government school system and send their children to a non-government school have never been funded to the extent that children in the government sector are funded, and they never will be funded to that extent. There is always a discount, essentially, that a family takes that they will get less taxpayer support, less government support by making that choice. What we’re simply looking at here is how you have the clear lines of responsibility, and we’re taking what has been the historical case that the Federal Government has historically supported non-government schools with funding, but funding to a lesser degree than government schools get, and that states and territories have always been responsible, always been responsible for the funding of government schools. They still make those decisions today as to how much an individual school gets.

Kim Landers: But if the Federal Government wants to be hands-off completely from any sort of public school, and all states and territories go their own way, are you not worried that there will develop eight different standards for education with all of these different education systems if there’s no federal hand in it at all?

Simon Birmingham: Let’s deal with that on a couple of fronts. Firstly let’s have a look at the funding [indistinct], because right now today Victoria spends on a per-student basis in their government schools around $12,000 per student, Western Australia spends around $17,500 per student. There are wide disparities in what is spent, but we don’t necessarily see such a huge disparity in terms of student outcomes between Victoria and Western Australia. What that demonstrates is it’s not a case of how much money you spend that necessarily matters, it’s how you actually use that money. Now just because we actually had clearer lines of funding that actually said that states and territories are 100 per cent responsible for making funding decisions for their schools, that doesn’t stop us from having national cooperation around areas of agreed interest, such as a national curriculum, teacher standards, areas that we can actually improve the quality of our student outcomes regardless of the inputs. And it is of course critically important to make sure that parents do appreciate nobody is suggesting that the Commonwealth withdraw funding support for schools, unless the states get an increased revenue stream. As the Treasurer said last night on 7:30, if you gave the states for example two percentage points of the income tax base, that would be about $14 billion in revenue to those states, and yet the funding amount for government schools is about $6.8 billion. So you actually create a situation where the states and territories, if they chose to, could fully implement the Gonski model if that’s what they wanted to do. Or they could invest more in preschool and early childhood education.

Kim Landers: You’re talking there, sorry, you’re talking there about the Gonski model. Certainly New South Wales had made a suggestion that why not spread the final two years of Gonski funding over four years, are you saying that no offer is going to be made to the states and territories today on school funding?

Simon Birmingham: We already have in the budget projections to continue to grow school funding into the future, growing it at the rate of the CPI is what is currently projected in the budget. Now the offer that is being made to the states and territories today is one that is far more generous than what is in the budget. It gives them autonomy over how they choose to spend the money, where they direct it but it actually would give them a growth stream of revenue that is more than CPI, more than the GST, because the share of income tax actually grows at a faster level. So this is one in terms of actually knowing they have more revenue to direct into schools or preschools or other state government priorities. It’s something the states should warmly embrace. Yes it would make them 100 per cent accountable for the decisions they make and how they allocate the money, but it would actually give them a much better and stronger outcome than is currently projected.

Kim Landers: You’re a senator from South Australia, the premier there Jay Wetherill is concerned that this whole income tax deal could end up disadvantaging smaller states like yours.

Simon Birmingham: Well I don’t think that’s the case, we already have through the Commonwealth Grants Commission the wonderfully termed horizontal fiscal equalisation that of course seeks to level out the playing field between the states and territories that it redistributes the GST, to some controversy from states like Western Australia but it redistributes that to make sure that you do have a fair and level playing field that takes account of smaller states, of smaller populations, of regional factors, of greater expense in the cost of delivery of services. Nobody is proposing to do away with that equalisation factor, all that is on the table here is to say that rather than having more than 100 different agreements that see the Commonwealth pay a portion of funding in a particular policy area, we should instead give the states a clear stream of revenue, a share of income tax, from which they can then be accountable for how that money is spent and actually end the bureaucracy, the duplication and the begging that goes on every year when the premiers go to Canberra asking for more money.

Kim Landers: Okay Minister we’ll have to leave it there, thank you very much for speaking with AM.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Kim.

Kim Landers: And that is the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, from Adelaide.