Flat White

Why should the rich have free public schools?

10 July 2017

12:30 PM

10 July 2017

12:30 PM

We all know the school stereotype. Government schools are full of disadvantaged students and struggling for money, while overfunded wealthy independent schools receive taxpayer money they will just spend on fancier swimming pools.

This is a myth.

As recent research clearly demonstrates, government schools reflect the socioeconomic status of parents in the school catchment areas.

And according to data from the federal Department of Education, there are 538 government schools with a majority of students from the top 25 per cent of SES. These include the academically selective government schools, which mainly attract students from very high SES backgrounds, and resemble the most ‘elite’ independent schools.

While students in government schools on average have lower SES than in non-government schools, a substantial proportion of government school students are from high SES backgrounds, and 21 per cent of all government school students are in the top quarter of SES.

In other words, around 500,000 school students from ‘rich’ families go to government schools — much more than the 365,000 students from this category who attend independent and Catholic schools.

This challenges an unquestioned, unjustified assumption at the heart of school funding in Australia: universal free public schooling must continue.

The Gonski school funding model, which contrary to common perception is not actually ‘sector-blind’, reflects this assumption. Non-government schools have their base funding reduced depending on the school’s SES score (calculated using student residential addresses) as it is assumed they can charge higher fees. But there are no similar restrictions on funding for government schools and so they all receive the same base funding regardless of SES.

The status quo is inequitable and unfair. High-income parents in high SES areas—where government schools tend to perform much better—are able to send their children to government schools for free.

In contrast, low-income parents in low SES areas—where government schools tend to perform much worse—have to make significant financial contributions to send their children to a non-government school if they are (understandably) not satisfied with the quality of the local government school.

Sure, the underlying long-term issue is the inconsistent quality of schooling, but in the meantime parents in low SES areas are unfairly disadvantaged.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the government school system catering for students from all SES backgrounds. But why shouldn’t schooling be means-tested like most other government services? Surely millionaires can pay for their children’s education without the assistance of the taxpayer? And in a time of budget deficits and alleged widespread ‘underfunding’ of the government school system, how is it reasonable to ban high SES government schools from charging compulsory fees?

Some government schools do already ask for voluntary and subject fees, but these are inconsistent and often aren’t a reliable source of income.

The unnecessary constraint on government schools—stopping them from receiving compulsory contributions from high-income parents—means much more taxpayer funding than needed is spent on many government schools.

Let’s end the façade that all government schools have no capacity to charge fees and are in desperate need of taxpayer support. State governments should seriously consider charging school fees for high SES parents.

‘Free’ public schooling for everyone is an idea without any practical reason to support it. The time has come to challenge this article of progressive faith.

Blaise Joseph is an Education Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Fantasy of Gonski Funding: The ongoing battle over school spending.

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