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Maeve McGregor

Crikey’s cheat-sheet guide to the Victorian election. Today: education

This is part five in an explainer series about the important issues in the Victorian election. Read part onepart twopart three and part four.

A little over eight years ago, Daniel Andrews crouched and posed for a photo, holding a comically over-sized number plate emblazoned with the words: “Victoria — The Education State”.

Smiling, the then opposition leader told reporters that education under a Labor government “would be more than just a word”, it would “be a rock-solid foundation for our economic future”.

In the time since, the notion that public schools have seen “massive record investment” under Labor has become something of a common refrain within the Victorian government. The upshot, on this view, is that responsibility or blame for any persistent inequities in school funding is something which belongs to the federal government and the federal government alone.

The opposition, for its part, has largely adopted this narrative, joining forces with Labor in ignoring a chorus of calls to make good the $20 billion shortfall in needs-based funding public schools will confront over the next decade.

By this reckoning, Victoria’s public schools will — whatever the election outcome — continue to languish as the most underfunded and underprivileged in the country.

So much, you might say, for the “education state”. Welcome to part five of Crikey’s explainer series on the Victorian election, focused on why education should uniformly be front-of-mind for voters, and why it isn’t.

The big picture

For years, data published by the Productivity Commission (PC) has — contrary to the claims of both major parties in Victoria — repeatedly laid bare the vast and expanding inequities in public education.

Former PC economist Trevor Cobbold — convenor of advocacy group Save our Schools — said the rate of combined federal and state government funding for Victoria’s independent schools in the decade to 2020 outpaced that of public schools by a factor of more than five.

Adjusted for inflation, the figures showed a 27% rise — equivalent to $2582 for each student — in funding for independent schools in that period, compared with just 5% for public schools, where funding increased by just $667 for each student.

Nationwide, the picture that emerges is one of broadly similar trends, save for the fact no other jurisdiction underfunds public schools to the extent long witnessed in Victoria.

On Cobbold’s analysis, the combined funding for the state’s public schools comprises less than 85% of the minimum benchmark recommended by the Gonski review — the School Resource Standard (SRS) — while funding for independent schools sits comfortably at about 102% of the SRS.

The benchmark set by the SRS gives expression to a minimum level of resource-based funding for each student, allowing for loadings based on socioeconomic disadvantage, disability and Indigenous status.

Under the existing school funding model, the states contribute 20% of the SRS for private schools, and the Commonwealth the balance. The split is reversed for public schools.

In 2019, the Andrews government grudgingly agreed to step up its share of the SRS target for public schools from less than 67.8% — the lowest of any state or territory government — to 75% by 2028, and the Commonwealth 20% by 2023.

Neither the state nor the federal government has committed funds towards the outstanding 5% required to meet the SRS, effectively condemning Victorian public schools to inequitable funding arrangements until at least the end of this decade.

It’s an outcome which is guaranteed when it’s remembered that, in a uniquely Victorian phenomenon, at least 4% of the state contribution to the SRS comprises items — such as depreciation, transport, payroll tax — never originally conceived under the Gonski SRS, precisely because they have no bearing on teaching.

Consequently public schools will at best be funded only to around or less than 90% of the SRS by the close of the decade, not the 95% indicated in recent Parliamentary Budget Office analysis.

What are the parties promising?

The opposition is, as flagged, unconvinced public schools lack sufficient funding, and has focused its election platform for education reform around building upgrades and modifications to the curriculum. To this end, about $1 billion in capital works has been promised for government schools, and a further $700 million for independent schools, while a further $300 million has been pledged for its two-year free lunches pilot.

Labor has taken a similar approach, promising free kindergartens, a $1.6 billion capital works program for public schools and kindergartens, as well as $717 million to build and upgrade low-fee non-government schools and kindergartens.

None of the major parties, apart from the Greens, have even remotely focused their election pitches on the fundamental crises engulfing the public school system: inequitable funding and workforce shortages.

Bottom line

It’s often said that “throwing money” at public schools is not the answer to declining educational outcomes. But that proceeds on the false assumption schools are properly and equitably funded in the first place. In reality, both major parties in Victoria have contributed to one of the most serious public policy failures in Australian history; something neither party is likely to concede any time soon.

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