Interview on Sky News PVO NewsDay with Samantha Maiden
Future schools funding arrangements

Samantha Maiden: Now, the looming battle over public and private schools funding in Australia. The current agreement runs out in January 2018, and the Turnbull Government needs to strike a deal with the states. But it’s delayed outlining a new funding model with the states at a meeting of Education Ministers this week, leaving the debate to COAG. Joining me now live is the Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Welcome.

Simon Birmingham: Hello Sam. Great to be with you.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Let’s start with the problem. What is the problem as you see it that needs to be resolved as part of these discussions with the states, in terms of you’ve suggested that there are private schools that are overfunded?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the problem is a whole bunch of inequities that exist right across the board that we inherited from the previous government’s 27 different funding models for schools across Australia. And they operate in very inconsistent ways, not just across different school sectors, but across different states and territories as well, so that you can have a similar government  school in one state or territory with the same level of need – the same low socioeconomic circumstances, the same number of Indigenous students, for example, all of those different factors you’d consider in a needs-based formula – the same type of school receiving vastly different sums of money. Forty per cent type differences between one school in one state and another school in another state from the Federal Government, and the difference in funding they receive is solely because they’re in a different state or territory. Now, the same type of differentials can be drawn in terms of schools within the Catholic sector or independent schools where we can see wide disparity because we have a whole bunch of inconsistent deals that were done all over the country. 

Now, if you step back and have a look at what the Gonski report that is often held up by the Labor Party and the Education Union and others, much of the Gonski report went to how do you fairly and equitably distribute the money that you have. It wasn’t so much about how much you spend. There are factors there to be dealt with. But overwhelmingly, it was how do you fairly and equitably do it, and rather than follow that report in a fairly consistent and methodical way, what Bill Shorten as Education Minister in the Gillard and Rudd years did was actually just step through a process of doing a whole lot of different special deals, rather than following any type of consistent approach or formula.

Samantha Maiden: Yeah. I mean, it’s worth noting here that of course it was the special deals during the Howard years that Gonski was meant to fix, and now as you say, we’re back in the same place where we’re trying to fix other special deals. But let’s start with the pledge that Julia Gillard offered when she brought Gonski in. She said no school will lose a dollar. Can you promise that under the changes that you’re looking at, no school will lose a dollar?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ve been very deliberate in not repeating that pledge, because I think you have to leave everything on the table. But I do emphasise a couple of points. Firstly that in terms of schools that some in the media terms as overfunded schools, that is a very, very small number of such schools, and there are far more in the independent sector, the Catholic sector, or the government sector, far more schools who might be notionally underfunded than there are schools that are notionally overfunded. So this idea that there could be some giant hit list out there is ridiculous. But I don’t want to say no school could lose a dollar, because if I’m going to be open about considering the merits of every single argument to come up with a fair distribution for our record and growing levels of funding, then we have to consider everything as to how you adjust people onto a consistent approach and a consistent formula. 

The second point I would emphasise there, though, is of course it is a record level investment at present, and it grows each and every year into the future. So there’s no reason for any sector or school to fear that they won’t overall be seeing school funding grow into the future, that across states, across sectors, of course there’s going to be continued growth in school funding because that’s what the budget indicates.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Is it only private schools, overfunded private schools that are likely to lose money, or could some public schools lose money as well?

Simon Birmingham: Sam, as I said, I don’t want to start slicing and dicing things into specifics, because it’s important that in continuing to listen to the states and the non-government sector, I keep all the cards on the table. People have otherwise publicly done their analysis of the My School website and other things, and I think very few would find that there are instances, I’m not sure anybody’s found instances of government schools that fit that definition people use in the media of overfunded. So I think you can say that’s not likely to be on the table. 

But I want to make sure that we have full, frank discussions. I’ve invited the states on multiple occasions to tell me how they would improve the model, how they would change the model, how we can better achieve the principle of equity. While all of the states argue for more money for themselves, I’m yet to see any of them argue for- or against since that we should treat them all fairly and equitably, even though some of them have better deals today as a result of the Labor arrangement than others do.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Yeah, but this is a pretty politically explosive idea though, isn’t it? Particularly from a Coalition Government. I mean, you would have to go back to Kim Beazley to find even a Labor Leader that was prepared to take money from private schools and give it to public schools. The tradition has been Julia Gillard said no school would lose a dollar, even if they were overfunded private schools. Even Mark Latham was only going to take money from rich private schools and give it to poorer private schools.

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] Sam, let me really emphasise the point here. There are far more independent non-government schools that are notionally underfunded than there are overfunded. So this is not a public school versus private school debate. This is about treating all schools across sectors and within sectors in a fair and equitable manner. So this shouldn’t be seen as taking money from one lot to give to another lot in that sense. It’s about ensuring that if you’re having a funding formula that’s based on need, it applies that consistently, not just across the different sectors between public school and private school, but within those sectors as well so that you don’t have circumstances where it’s a government school or a non-government school …

Samantha Maiden: [Talks over] Okay. But I mean, you are really between a rock and a hard place here, aren’t you? I mean you have taken several packages to Cabinet, and you have been knocked back in Cabinet with your proposals to reform this sector. There have been concerns within Cabinet about possible cuts to Catholic schools, and you are left in this position where you are essentially trying to clean up the mess that Joe Hockey left behind in the 2014 budget when he stripped indexation of schools back down to CPI, and you are now trying to get this through Cabinet. Do you- what do you think is going to- what’s your pledge to Catholic schools, given that that has flared as an issue in Cabinet? What will happen to Catholic schools that are overfunded in relation to this package?

Simon Birmingham: You won’t be surprised to know I’m not going to confirm what’s “flared as issues” in Cabinet. Cabinet of course discusses important issues like school funding, and Cabinet made a decision under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership just before the election last year to increase the level of school funding further from what the 2014 budget indicated by an additional $1.2 billion that went into the budget. We made a decision then that we want to make sure our record level of funding that will grow from $16 billion last year to more than $20 billion by 2020 is distributed fairly, according to need, and we want to make sure that those principles are met and we’re working through all the different options for how we can do that. We’re listening to the views of the states, the Catholic sector, independent school representatives, taking all of those on board. 

My commitment to all of them is that funding will remain at record levels. It will keep growing above enrolment, above inflation, that we will do as we’ve said we’d do, which is distributed fairly and according to need, just as we did in relation to child care reforms recently where the Turnbull Government made the decisions necessarily to implement a better, fairer model that provides better targeted support to lowest income, hard working Australians. 

We’ll make sure that in terms of schools funding, we provide a model that represents needs-based distribution of funding, still supports funding for every single child in Australia. We support absolutely the right of parents to choose to fund and go to an independent school, a Catholic school, or a government school. The Commonwealth will maintain its role as it has ever since it got into school funding as the dominant funder of non-government schools. The states will maintain their role as the dominant funder of government schools. But ultimately, we will come up with a model that will deal with all of the inconsistencies that Labor left us with, and not do it in a way that relies on a 150-year transition pathway, which is the type of formula that Julia Gillard and co cooked up.

Samantha Maiden: Okay. Alright, we’re going to have to leave it there, unfortunately, but thank you so much for your time today, Simon Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sam.

Samantha Maiden: Thank you.