For some time now, debate over educational funding has revolved around the Australian Labor Party promising schools more money, and the Liberal Party promising schools less money than Labor. Indeed, there has been no policy platform which exhibits the critical comments about the Liberal Party being ‘Labor Lite’ than in education. The Coalition’s ‘Gonski 2.0’ funding scheme is a prime example. Australia currently spends 5.6 per cent of its GDP on education – a level above the OECD average and achieving, “a relatively high expenditure on education.”
All throughout these changes in government and education policy, both parties have, according to the data, failed to substantially improve educational outcomes in schools. These trends run concurrent with the wealth of literature that raises questions marks in relation to the correlation between school funding and educational outcomes. Rather, education policy should focus on empowering parents and expanding choices for students, not just the allocation of money.
In this respect, there is one approach to educational funding which could be the important first step to cutting school funding, but simultaneously improving educational outcomes in Australia: a student-based funding system, otherwise known as the ‘voucher system of funding.’ The framework operates on the principle that government funds ought to be allocated to schools based on their intake of each student. Here are three reasons why the Liberal Party ought to advocate for this different approach to educational funding.
The voucher system decentralises power from big government, and into the hands of families and educational pioneers. Student-based funding means, in principle, those families with school-aged children are given a wider choice of where they can send their children. The money is not dumped into the endless black hole of the schooling system but instead, it follows where students want to go.
Although critics could argue that such an approach to funding would mean parents only wanting to send their children to private and top-tier selective schools, even these schools have limited capacity for enrolments.
Further to this, student-based funding allows provision for new schools to open their doors if there is sufficient demand within a certain geographical area. When funding is no longer attached to the bureaucracy but to individuals, then the minimum requirement to open a new school (from a financial perspective) is to convince enough students to attend that school in order to make it a profitable venture. Alternatively, in instances where parents decide that they wish to homeschool their children (provided certain criteria are met), then even those families could receive student-based funding themselves.
The voucher system keeps schools accountable and efficient. Flowing on from decentralisation, the allocation of money to students requires that schools must compete for funding. Indeed, if there is any sure-fire way to remove fad, flowery educational theories like the Safe Schools Program that only serve to dumb down our educational system, then this is it. Schools would be held to account to prove to parents that their child ought to attend their school – that is, schools would be required to deliver educational outcomes: improved grades and student development that sets our children up for success later in life. In the strictest sense, schools will have little choice but to perform or lose funding.
Student-based funding also allows greater autonomy to local principals and school committees – a profoundly good thing. Schools will be enabled to apply changes to the manner in which they teach their students as they see fit, providing a more customised and refined educational service to students in the area.
It will win the Liberal Party votes. Education policy today presents enormous opportunity to the Liberal Party when it comes to votes. If education is a priority value as you approach the ballot box, you will most likely vote Labor. The Liberal Party has done itself very few favours when it comes to education policy because it has wedged itself by adopting a leaner, more diluted version of Labor’s funding policies.
The Liberal Party must adopt a different education policy platform – one that works, and one that differentiates our Party from the rest as one of good government. Yes, the teachers’ unions and education lobbies will hate it, but the reality is that these institutions will never support the Liberal Party anyway. What adopting and implementing a student-based funding system could do is make the small percentage of people in education who don’t agree with Labor or the current Liberal policy vote for the Coalition. Such a change might not seem like much, but it is better than the 0% of votes we currently get because of our educational policies.
Student-based funding might seem something of a pipe dream, but if the Liberal Party wishes to forge a legacy in education and start winning votes from good public policy, then the onus is upon them to stop funding schools and start funding students.
Robert Assaf is president of the Willoughby Young Liberal Branch of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party of Australia and is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Secondary Education at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.