The First Casualty...

The 2004 Federal election was won and lost for more than one reason – but if there was a policy that signalled Labor’s woes it was the Education “Hit List”. It was a waste of time in terms of gaining votes, playing to existing prejudices and vested interests. This time around there is no “hit-list”. Ominously for the Government, the closest equivalent in the 2007 Campaign has been scare tactics relating to Labor frontbenchers’ union leadership experience. Again, this language seems to reflect a caucus or secretariat that projects its own fears and fantasies onto an electorate slipping from its grasp.

The Hit List was also a loss in terms of real education policy, given the widely-acknowledged need for public schools in particular to get a better deal. It was bogged in the mire of comparison rather than helping set clear and general standards for the quality of education we want all Australian children to have.

One echo of the Hit List has continued into the 2007 election – a set of figures about Federal funding of private and public education. These have been the centre of a series of advertisements from the Australian Education Union pointing to unfavourable comparisons – 70% of Australian students attend public schools, but these attract only 35% of Federal funding.

Unfortunately this is a bit like complaining about the small amounts of money the Victorian government puts into the RAAF. Defence is not a state responsibility, and primary and secondary schools are not primarily a Federal responsibility. To find any starting point for the debate we need to have about the quality of Australian schools, total government funding is the only meaningful figure.

In today’s Age it got worse, however: Leslie Cannold claimed that “For every dollar the Federal Government spends on a child in public school, $5.63 is expended on a child in a Catholic or other non-government school.” Although woven into a personal narrative of concern and guilt, this is the sort of thing that gives cheap shots a bad name. Note the change from “the Federal government” to the impersonal “is expended” between the two clauses. Has Cannold compared Federal funding of public schools with all funding of private schools? An honest mistake from an ethicist, presumably.

In fact it works something like this, or did in 2004-5:

The Federal government funded each Victorian school student in public schools at $920, and each private school student at $4,340. But State funding for the same public students was $8,779.57, and only $1,112 for private school students. The total: $9,700 of government funding per state school student and $5451 per private student.

Blame and shame, our own or others, isn’t how to have the debate. Children deserve rather more than to be the victims of crossfire in a mean-spirited cultural skirmish alongside this election. Australia’s kids deserve good, and potentially free, education. Australia also needs parents who have the means to do so, to contribute at much higher levels to the education of their own as well as others’ children. Teachers generally need better pay and recognition. More investment does need to be made in facilities and equipment. And yes, especially in public schools. Why private school funding should be the source of new resources for public schools has never been properly explained, nor can it be.

Australian kids and their families also deserve choices, and specific communities such as religious traditions need to offer such choices to their own members and others. And above all we all need to consider the outcomes we want for each child, not by making false comparisons but by seeking the best for them in absolute terms. I trust the elected government will face that challenge.

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