Gravity lost in funding debate when apples ain’t apples

24-APR-2017

Young Isaac Newton was sitting in his garden when an apple fell on his head. Instead of cursing the instrument of some distress, he had a flash of inspiration which led to him developing his theory of gravity. The rest, as they say, is history.

Apocryphal as the story may well be, a report released by the Australian Education Union this week would have you believe that Newton would have had the same insight into gravity, had a piano fallen on him.

In an overly simplistic presentation of school funding data from 2009 to 2015, the AEU’s Bernie Shepherd would appear to have produced some misleading analysis comparing the funding that schools from different sectors receive, based on a measure of student and school-level factors that predict a school’s performance in the annual NAPLAN testing. In education speak; this is known as the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage or ICSEA.

But ICSEA was never designed to assess school funding levels and this makes the AEU analysis deeply flawed. Among the faults are that it doesn’t compare schools based on whether they educate primary or secondary students (secondary students cost more to education and consequently attract more government funding), it doesn’t consider the size of a school (which is the single biggest determinant of school funding requirements, in per-student terms), nor does it consider school enrolments of cohorts such as students with disability. Students with disability receive additional funding to meet additional learning costs, but are not measured in ICSEA.

While the data might show substantial increases in funding for Victorian Catholic schools from 2009 to 2015, what Mr Shepherd hasn’t factored was the faster growth in secondary enrolments in Catholic schools compared to Victorian government schools. Additionally, there was higher growth in students with disability in Catholic schools than government schools from 2009 to 2015. Since the Catholic sector has had faster enrolment growth than government schools in higher-cost students (secondary students, and students with disability), it stands to reason that government funding has grown faster for Catholic schools. That’s the whole idea of needs-based funding, which the AEU purports to support, except when it leads to more funding for Catholic schools.

But even if you accept the premise that comparing schools is a good idea – which it isn’t – but if you do, and if you compare secondary schools with secondary schools, you will find funding differences across the state, and across Australia. There are indeed Catholic schools that receive more government money than ‘similar’ state schools, particularly if they have low ICSEA scores.

While both the state and federal governments determine the total pool of funding that Catholic school systems receive, the amount each Catholic school receives is determined by the Victorian Catholic system, in consultation with school principals. The Catholic system has consciously decided to allocate more funding to schools with low ICSEA scores because they have high needs.

Conversely, when you look at Catholic schools with higher ICSEA scores, you find that they receive significantly less funding than ‘similar’ state schools.

The difference in funding between schools is not based on the amount the state or federal government has allocated each school, but how the state system and the Catholic system have chosen to allocate that funding. The Catholic system distributes nearly double the amount the state system does (as percentage of total system funding) towards disadvantaged students and schools. In effect, the funding formula used by the Victorian Catholic system for Catholic schools is more ‘needs based’ than the funding formula used by the Victorian Government for state schools. The Catholic sector in Victoria is rightfully proud of this practice.

And before the AEU or any other public education advocate might claim that there is some trickery to how the Catholic system allocates funding in Victoria, please visit the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria website and download the school funding guide. It’s updated regularly as determinations about funding are made, and consultation and assent by Catholic school principals.

At the end of all of this, what did Shepherd and the AEU achieved by dropping a Steinway on the funding? Education ministers are still discussing this deeply divisive issue without any clear direction of where they need to be heading.

It’s clear we need to work together. If the Catholic, government and independent systems can all agree on what an apple is, then there is a chance that state and federal education ministers will understand the gravity of our position, and ensure that all students get a good deal.