Labor abandons public education

by John Frew

Nothing coming from Albanese and the Labor government offers any hope for public schools.
Minister for Education Jason Clare’s recent public sermons, in response to the latest Product Commissions findings on Australia’s failure to produce a quality education system, will challenge his courage and integrity.
His declared position ‘I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin’ is noble and brave. It has the same quality as Hawke’s ‘No child will live in poverty’ and Gillard’s ‘new school funding would put Australia in the top five education systems by 2025’, we know how those predictions worked out. Clare has inherited a failed, highly discriminatory education system that reflects the demography of the students who attend; a system that produces results ‘based on postcodes’!
The evidence to support the existence of a two-tiered system is clear and freely available. Families with incomes above $100,000 send their kids to private schools, 40% to Independent and 21% the Catholic yet only 5% of families who have an income less than $25,000 attend private schools and these are predominantly Catholic. Private school enrolments have increased by 70% since 2012 when Gillard’s resolve collapsed when she was confronted by the private school lobby. The total failure of Gillard’s attempt to reform funding is evident. Over the last 20 years Government funding for the private sector has risen 98.7% compared to 53% increase for public schools, the majority has occurred in the last ten years.
The Liberal/National Parties have been in charge of education for the last decade, particularly in NSW and this skewed distribution of funds has not been a surprise, these parties make no secret about their societal beliefs. They may dress up their approach as providing ‘choice’, but the illusion of ‘choice’ ranks along with the fallacy of ‘meritocracy’; both are bogus. Students with poor parents, who live in remote communities or who have disability have no choice, they can’t afford the fees, private schools are not available and the private sector is loath to take on students with disabilities, particularly that of dysfunctional behaviour. Public schools enrol 80% of these students and almost all of those with behaviour problems.
Jason Clare has made his connection with public education one of the centre points of his political persona. In his maiden speech in 2008 he claimed “our education system is the most powerful cause for good in this country, run well it can ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their potential. It is a great equaliser in an unequal world”! He continues to present himself as a champion of education. In a recent speech to the Smith Family he described that institution as “an organisation that has always understood education is a powerful cause for good. That it is a real change agent in our society”. He missed the irony, as a member of parliament he was congratulating a charity for attending to children his government had abandoned.
Perhaps an argument could be made that Albanese has not made education a priority, perhaps he feels the bold policy presented by Shorten at the 2018 election was too detailed and easily attacked by the same forces that had so successfully destroyed Gillard’s ambitions. Shorten presented a comprehensive 14-page long policy promising to implement the original Gonski Reforms and pledging $37.3 billion to do so.
However, nothing coming from Albanese offers any hope for public schools. The launch of the ALP’s Education Policy was held in the prestigious St Mary’s Cathedral School, Albo’s Alma Marta and the school chosen for the then Shadow Minister’s son. This symbolic message of assurance to private schools was an equally despairing sign of the continued neglect for public schools. Noticeably missing at the launch was any promise of addressing the inequity in the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), the estimate of how much funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs.
Tanya Plibersek, in a speech promised that under her leadership there would be no change to funding of Catholic and Independent schools, a depressing replica of Gillard’s capitulation all those years ago. She understood that these private schools were already funded above the required SRS. They are currently at 104.3%, above the required 100% while public schools are at 87.1%, almost 13% below the required SRS.
Plibersek has always been seen as a caring member, a graduate of the public system and a working-class warrior but the only commitment to addressing this significant imbalance was to ‘try to get public schools to 100% but not at the expense of the private sector’.
Much has been written about the efficiency of the private school lobby Gillard faced when she proposed to introduce the Gonski findings. The Catholic push back was extremely powerful led by the late Cardinal Pell who openly supported the Liberal Party. What is real but rather paradoxical is that it was Murdoch’s press that championed the campaign. Paradoxical, because Murdoch is not a Catholic. But he has emerged as a real supporter of that religion. He received a papal knighthood from the Pope in 1998 after donating $US10 million to the Los Angeles diocese.
This embracing of the Catholic doctrine is reflected in the staff of his media outlets. Chris Mitchell the editor-in-chief of the Australian confirmed Pell’s influence on that paper was connected to what he called a ‘Catholic Mafia’. Rupert Murdoch is reputed to have said his preferred recruit was someone straight out of a mid-level Catholic school who wears short-sleeved shirts to work. When you combine this religiosity with neoliberal beliefs, News Corp is a powerful partner for the private schools.
Labor’s relationship with Murdoch has been torturous. Bill Shorten refused to meet with the Murdoch’s representatives before his election and their papers punished him. Albanese, taking the much-trodden pragmatic approach almost immediately met with Lachlan and the News Corp Executives. Pragmatism is not leadership and is not principled, it is a position taken by the weak.
I hold out hope for Jason Clare but he has to one day make a stand and live up to his stated principles. His initial actions are not promising, he has delayed a decision on reviewing the National Schools Reform Agreement, abandoning every child attending a public school. All Clare had to do was immediately fund all public schools to 100% of their entitled SRS!