My Kid's School Can't Fund A Library But My Taxes Pay For Private School Swimming Pools
As a rusted-on supporter of state schools, I am not above falling prey to the odd pang of private school envy on behalf of my kids.
"Preps run a market produce stall and design their own toy box app, while in Year One, students design and build a sustainable fairy house in the digital fabrication laboratory," read the seductive spiel of a private girls' school near my home, in a recent Sunday paper education supplement.
Only one day later, that same newspaper reported that many of the state's wealthiest private schools are spending up to $500,000 per year on advertising and marketing.
How is it, I wonder, that while my children's school struggles to find the space and funds for a permanent library, another school just up the road is dropping a cool $340,000 per year on marketing? Both schools are, after all, 'government funded'.
Fortunately, the data paints a reassuring picture for public school parents irked by their children's lack of access to Olympic aquatic centres and weather stations (yes, really): according to the OECD'S most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report, once a student's socio-economic background is accounted for, there's little difference between the educational outcomes of private and public school students.
And an in-depth analysis of student growth across each school sector by the Grattan Institute in 2018 stated that "our findings debunk the idea that private schools do a better job of stretching students to their full learning potential in core subjects of literacy and numeracy".
The Grattan Institute also noted, however, that its research didn't look at the less easily measured benefits of a private school education. And according to a 2018 ABC investigation, "Australia's four richest schools spent more on new facilities and renovations than all of the poorest 1,800 combined".
Of course, facilities don't make a school: teachers do. But teachers can only work with the resources available to them. At my kids' school, the performing arts teacher has a few battered instruments to share amongst 700 students. Meanwhile, five minutes down the road, a large private school is currently building a $21 million music facility.
I'm not too worried about how my own kids will fare in the state school system, even if I do sometimes balk at listening to my first grader reading yet another circa-1978 reader ('Medieval Medical Care' being a recent highlight). They fall into that fortunate bracket of state school children who are likely to achieve similar academic results to their private school counterparts. It is the kids without the cushioning of a middle-class background who suffer most at the hands of a system that prioritises the funding requirements of the wealthiest schools in the country.
School funding in Australia is a complicated beast: while public schools get the lion's share of state funding, private schools get most of the Commonwealth dollars. According to the Grattan Institute's Peter Goss, "Australia has increased the real resources available to schools by more than $2 billion in a decade, but we spent the money on the schools that needed it least."
Goss lays the blame at the feet of the states, explaining that over that same period, after taking account of teacher wages, the states actually shrunk their funding of public schools. The most recent Grattan Institute analysis found that private schools received more than 80 percent of that extra $2 billion. Nearly one in three private schools in Australia now receives more taxpayer dollars than a typical similarly sized public school. A decade ago, that figure was about one in 20.
And the PISA report that provided those reassuring stats about private and public school educational outcomes also found that Australia now has the equal-fourth most socially stratified education system in the OECD.
It all makes for pretty stark reading, especially for a country that prides itself on its egalitarian spirit. Essentially, we are adding a second layer of feathers to the already comfortable nests of Australia's most privileged children, while leaving the poorest with sticks and stones. A high percentage of children from remote, Indigenous, and low socio-economic backgrounds fall far behind the national standards for literacy and numeracy. But our current funding system means in many cases, we're spending the most amount of money on children who attend well-resourced schools.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, private schools don't receive any government funding. That makes sense, in the same way that it makes sense for the government not to subsidise ponies, or swimming pools. Australians need to question how comfortable they are with having one of the most privatised education systems in the world, but whose tax dollars still heavily subsidise those private schools.
Public money should be used for public education -- not to top up the nation's wealthiest schools' advertising budgets.