A centre-right government and the largest non-government school system in Australia should be natural allies. But you wouldn’t think so, given the ongoing school funding war between the Turnbull government and the Catholic schools
Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity for a mutually beneficial deal: a federal Religious Freedom Act that would protect Catholic schools, in return for accepting lower funding growth.
Catholic schools should prioritise religious freedom over funding. The whole point of Catholic schools is that they are free to be Catholic. An integral part of this freedom is retaining the right to decide who they employ, who they enrol, and what they teach. This is essential to building a school culture and community that is genuinely Catholic. And it’s the reason many parents choose Catholic schools.
However, at the moment these freedoms are based on precarious exemptions to state and territory anti-discrimination laws. They are not enshrined in federal law and are at risk of being overturned by ‘progressive’ state and territory governments.
For example, since the marriage vote last year, there have been calls to force Christian schools to hire teachers who openly live in rejection of Church doctrine on marriage and sexuality.
That’s why the Catholic system should be pushing hard for a federal Religious Freedom Act to protect their right to continue to provide a Catholic education. And in the long term, Catholic schools being too reliant on government funding will undermine their independence.
Many people will reasonably ask: why should Catholic schools have to trade funding for their basic religious freedoms? The answer is that the significant additional funding promised by federal Labor is fool’s gold if it comes with strings attached and is used to attack freedom of religion.
The Catholic system should pressure Labor into supporting federal protections for schools’ religious freedom. Otherwise, less cash from the Coalition is a small price to pay for Catholic schools to guarantee their rights will be defended.
A government review due to be completed at the end of June — the school funding socio-economic status (SES) score methodology review chaired by Michael Chaney — is considering the main concern of the Catholic system about the school funding model. Non-government schools receive less taxpayer money if they have a higher SES score, and the way this is calculated arguably disadvantages Catholic schools relative to independent schools.
But regardless of the government’s response to the Chaney review, the Catholic system should use the funding debate as leverage to get the Turnbull government to commit to taking a Religious Freedom Act to the next election — there may even be a possibility of parliament passing this legislation before the election.
Catholic education, while not perfect, has a long and noble tradition of educating students with a focus on academic excellence and building virtue. Its ‘competitive advantage’ is its Catholic ethos. The Catholic system will survive smaller funding increases than desired; but it won’t survive losing its Catholicity.
Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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