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  • Gary Scarrabelotti

Gonski 2.0: the disappearing principles

Daylight robbery.

For whose children this great work of education?

About Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “Gonski 2.0” and the funding of schools public and private: something is missing. It’s odd that a major policy announcement on schools funding could be made without discussion of the principles engaged.

Just joking.

It’s all about the politics and the money, of course. Especially about the politics. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of admiration from the commentariat have greeted the dextrous policy manoeuvres of the PM and his Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham.

Gosh, so daring a daylight robbery. They’ve actually snatched and grabbed Labor’s education policy and, what’s more, with its creator, David Gonski, applauding from the curb side.

Brilliant. Courageous. Necessary. Farsighted. Principled even.

The undiscussed

Ah, principles? Now, what were they?

Well, the only statement of principle so far voiced — and that with remarkable economy — has come from the Turnbull Government: that “students with greater needs will attract higher levels of funding from the Commonwealth.”

‘Obviously’, the journos write and move on. From the private schools sector, however, there is a mix reactions: jolly self-satisfaction, muted concurrence and the sound of grinding teeth.

Let’s be serious, however, about principles. Let’s actually talk about them, and draw conclusions. What about “needs-based” funding? Does it stand up and does it have a place in education policy?

Well, it certainly sounds plausible that those more “in need” should get more government support than those less “in need”. But is it the highest principle that applies in this case: in this matter of education and, specifically, in the case of educating children?

To approach an answer, we need first to ask some elementary questions. Whose children are they? And are they, conceivably, the children of the state?

The answer to the latter is a resounding No. They are not children of the state.

The state has not brought to birth the children for whose education it presently seeks to provide. It was their parents who did this.

The fundament

Children belong to their parents. Not in the sense of children being “owned” by their parents. What they “own” is responsibility for their children: a responsibility which is natural to the parents; a responsibility which belongs to them alone because it arises biologically out of the family-forming intimacy of sexual union between the parents.

Here we come back with a jolt to considerations about the nature of the family: it’s the basic building block of human society without which tribes, nations and states cannot form. They are all founded, ultimately, upon the generative power and fruitfulness of conjugal relations within marriage. Given the primacy of the family in the genesis of all forms of society, it is the family which holds the first and highest role as educator of its children: not the tribe, not the nation, not the state.

To be sure, education occurs within a tribe, a nation and, especially in modern times, within a state. They all, certainly, make their own contributions to both the matter and method of education. None of these, however, even where they are important to the rounded development of children or lie beyond the resources of individual families to supply, diminishes the primary role of parents as educators. Parents decide, not the agents of the bureaucratic state and not the cultural trend-setters within society. The tribe, the nation and the state play ancillary roles in education: morally speaking, they cannot usurp the role of parents.

This is not to say that the state, for instance, cannot advocate particular fields of education as being, in its assessment, in the best interests of the state. This judgement, however, cannot be imposed on families who should be left free to take other courses. In particular, the state cannot define or impose, on its own authority, a “world view” intended to orientate and shape the educational endeavour. In this matter, society is prior to the state and the family prior to society.

So where does this get us?

State role

Fair question. Consider this. If families are primarily responsible for the education of their children, then the state is certainly not free to enforce a single educational system or a state-sanctioned ideology of education.

For that matter, the state is not even bound to provide for an education system of any kind, let alone a mass one. It may do so, but in that event it cannot force families to join a state-established and –authorized régime of education.

If, however, a state were simply to distribute resources among its people to underpin a society-wide education, it would need to do so in such a way that all families were left ultimately free to choose the educational course they desired for their children.

The tribe, the nation and the state play ancillary roles in education: morally speaking, they cannot usurp the role of parents.

If a state were to go further and to establish a “public” system of schools, it would have to do so in such a way that those who wished, for whatever reason, not to send their children into the “public” sphere would have the material freedom to choose alternative educational paths. In this case, the state would be obliged to grant parents who choose “alternative paths” access to resources comparable to those from which users of “public” schools would benefit.

Once these principles are accepted, it is perfectly justifiable for the state to allocate educational resources among all families engaged in the education of their children on the basis of need. How this need might be determined, and how it might be valued in terms of educational resources, poses a knotty pair of debatable, technical questions. The principle of needs-based funding itself, however, is sound if understood as subsidiary to, and in service of, the higher principle of the family as prime educator.

The issues

So what if anything is wrong with Gonski 2.0?

That it breeches the principle of the family as prime educator?

No. Families choosing not to send their children to public schools can access resources comparable to those from which users of “public” schools would benefit.

That the Federal Government has chosen a single formula for defining and valuing need?

No. A single, publicly recognised formula is more just to all than a series of opaque sectoral arrangements. There might be a problem with the formula itself and that certainly could be critiqued, perhaps severely so. The National Catholic Education Commission, for example, has some hard things to say on this very matter. But that there should be a single “transparent” method of allocating funds is difficult to contest.

That some schools might get less than under the current system of sectional settlements? No. Generally speaking, schools will get more money as Gonski 2.0 unfolds. It’s just that the more they will get will be less, in some cases, than the more they expected to receive under current, sectionally specific funding agreements. Obviously, schools have had to recalculate their funding requirements for the outer years of the programme where the differences between the ‘greater more’ and the ‘lesser more’ might lead, in the long run, to higher-than-expected fees for some private schools.

Are these projected fee increases an injustice? It is possible to believe so, but only if you take the view that parental choice in education should be fully funded by the state. The state, however, is under no obligation to provide for the full cost of education to anyone let alone to all — and educational autonomy surely has some price. In any case, private school systems will remain free to reallocate funds between schools operating within those systems.

More importantly, as Blaise Joseph points out in an incisive Spectator article, Gonski 2.0 is funded for only four years of a projected ten-year programme with a huge 88 percent of the additional school funding promised by the government being “unfunded”.

In other words, estimating actual school funding levels in 10 year’s time is highly speculative. Especially with our ballooning levels of government debt, both state and federal, the survival of Gonski 2.0 is problematic to say the least. When our dizzying national spend-a-thon one day, perhaps not far away, comes to a shocking and painful end, the Gonski 2.0 fee increases projected for some private schools will look like small change. Here we touch on the real problems with Gonski 2.0.

The real deal

First, there is its irresponsibility in promising more and unfunded spending to a community habituated to rivers of government money and with no experience of them running dry.

Secondly, it gives further credence to the fallacious idea that more money delivers better educational “outcomes”. In the same way that social dislocation and bad health in Aboriginal communities has got worse the more we have thrown money at them, so education standards have fallen as schools funding has risen. When Kazakhstan beats Australia in world maths and science rankings, you know (or you ought to know) that we’ve got a problem.

Finally, if one were tempted to argue that Gonksi 2.0 represents some compromise of parental rights as educators, then pause. The threat comes from another direction altogether and it is, above all, the rights of “public” school parents that are under attack.

The true danger lies in the politicisation chiefly of public schools – though private schools are hardly immune — and their exploitation by propagandists for political correctness in its varied forms, for a doctrinaire anti-science environmentalism and for the ideologists of gender fluidity.

By all means, let private school administrators go hammer and tongs over the formula at the heart of Gonski 2.0, but let’s have no illusions: the dangers faced by our schools have little to do with how many dollars a hijacked Labor policy will deliver 10 years from now.

Gary Scarrabelotti

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