Class War in the Classroom

In her Australia Day speech to the nation this year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the phrase “demography is not destiny” was a defining Australian characteristic. One of the most common ways to classify demographic information is by postcode - just ask Treasurer Wayne Swan. Much has been made of his penchant for the postcode since the budget. After all, it’s the name of a book he authored in 2005 - here’s a review. The Australian’s Tom Dusevic identified Australia’s most affluent postcodes as the biggest budget losers, including 3944 - Portsea - where the average salary is just under $200,000.

Is it “milking the rich”? Does it qualify as “class warfare”, as Tony Abbott claimed? “From the reaction, you’d think there was blood everywhere,” writes Michelle Grattan. She points out that the ‘class warfare’ amounts to 31,000 families losing family tax benefit A, 9,000 families losing benefit B, and just 700 families losing eligibility for the baby bonus in the first year.

One of the key spending commitments made in this week’s budget was $425 million to reward top performing teachers. Finance journalist Robert Gottliebsen called it a blow to middle-income earners, who are more likely to send their kids to independent schools. “The government is planning to substantially lift the rewards of government school teachers that are deemed to have performed well,” he wrote. “The independent schools system will have to find a way to match that and they will lift fees accordingly.”

There was no commitment to changing funding arrangements for independent schools. That’s something that’s going to have wait until the end of the year, when a Review of Federal School Funding led by David Gonski will hand down the findings of their report. But Gottliebsen reckons he has the early scoop: “The Gonski report, to be released later this year, will almost certainly lower the amount the government spends on independent schools and therefore lift fees by the same amount.”

David Gonski told the Australian Education Union’s Federal Conference earlier this year that “the focus on equity should be ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possession.” Echoing the PM’s Australia Day remarks, he added, “disadvantage is often determined by Indigenous status, non-English speaking backgrounds (including refugees and migrants), disability, geographical remoteness, and low socioeconomic status… The charge for our panel will be to consider funding arrangements that will be able to address this current disadvantage.” The Review released an Emerging Issues Paper in December. It received a wide variety of responses, published online.

Janet Albrechtsen sees things more starkly. On the same day the PM delivered her Australia Day speech, Albrechtsen claimed the Gonski report was being used to extend class warfare into the classroom. She accused teachers' unions of staging “a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the evils of funding private education and the virtues of funding public education.” Meanwhile, a February Sydney Morning Herald report indicated independent schools have received $2.7 billion more government funding than they were entitled to.

In a debate published in The Age earlier this year, Michelle Green of Independent Schools Victoria wrote, “Government schools received total government funding of $11,061 a student while non-government schools received $6089 a student.” Michelle Green will be speaking against the proposition, “Public funding of private education is unconsionable,” at the next Intelligence Squared debate on May 24.

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