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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9787

Ms WORTH (12:57 PM) —I thank members who have spoken on the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill 1999 , which amends the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act 1996 to give effect to initiatives announced in the 1999-2000 budget. Briefly, these initiatives will specifically provide $38.3 million in 2000 to increase funding under the literacy and numeracy program to help schools measurably improve the literacy and numeracy skills of students in the early and middle years of schooling. This funding will support two initiatives: support for the national literacy and numeracy plan and strategies to improve literacy and numeracy in the middle years of schooling. These initiatives also include $27.9 million to extend funding for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools strategy in 2000.

The bill also contains provisions which provide an additional $10.3 million for each of the program years up to and including 2003 for the non-government component of the capital grants program to maintain funding at the same real level as for the period 1997-99. The bill will provide an additional $2 million for short-term emergency assistance in 2000 to allow schools experiencing severe financial hardship or facing problems of viability to apply for assistance during the transitional period to the new SES funding model for non-government schools. The bill will also make a minor technical amendment to the headings in the act to change the name of the literacy program to the `Literacy and Numeracy Program'.

The government's continuing support for improvements in school students' literacy and numeracy skills, once again demonstrated in this bill, is a key aspect of the government's overall strategy to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of young Australians. The 1999-2000 budget provides an additional $131 million under the Literacy and Numeracy Program for disadvantaged school students, making a total of almost $869 million for literacy and numeracy in the next four years to 2002-03. The additional funding will help schools measurably improve the literacy and numeracy skills of students in the crucial early and middle years of schooling. The bill also provides $27.9 million to continue funding for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools strategy in 2000 to support enhanced and expanded Asian languages and Asian studies provision through all school systems in order to improve Australia's capacity and preparedness to interact internationally, particularly with key Asian economies.

This extra funding for the NALSAS strategy will be used to provide continued support to teachers and students. The government's funding policies for schools will assist in ensuring quality educational outcomes for students in government and non-government schools. Total direct Commonwealth schools funding will amount to $17 billion over the period 1997 to 2000. This funding affirms the Commonwealth's commitment to schooling in Australia, but I will have more to say about this issue after I have addressed some of the comments made by opposition members during this debate.

The member for Dobell has challenged the government to show what has happened to the funding announced in the budget for the new Quality Teacher Program—an amount of $77.7 million over three years. If the member had taken the time to check his facts, he would have found that on 30 June this funding was provided for in Appropriation Act (No. 1). The bill before this House is a special appropriation. In fact, I am surprised that the member for Dobell did not know of this since the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, in a letter dated 7 June 1999, provided him with a breakdown of the education funding in the then Appropriation Bill (No. 1), which separately identified funding for the Quality Teacher Program. Further to this, the member for Dobell actually spoke on the appropriation bill in June and welcomed the funding for teacher development. I might add that I have been amazed at how many opposition speakers have continued to repeat this blunder during the debate on this bill.

The member for Dobell is also trying to create the impression that there is division between the Commonwealth and the states over literacy testing and benchmarking. This is wrong. The fact is that the Commonwealth and states are working together cooperatively to establish appropriate testing regimes and benchmarks.

The member for Rankin has taken an extremely cynical view of the literacy initiatives of this government by implying that the purpose of national comparable literacy testing is to compile what he terms `a shaming list'. This of course is far from the truth. What the government wants are clear statements of comparable outcomes of students across Australia so that parents can be assured that their children are receiving a quality education. National benchmarks provided to parents will let them know how their child is progressing. That the states have agreed to participate in such an exercise should reassure the member for Rankin that the governments of Australia are working together for the best interests of Australian school students.

Both the member for Rankin and the member for Kingston questioned whether specific purpose payments would be reduced because of the introduction of the GST. The member for Kingston even answered this question by quoting clause 5(5) of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Commonwealth-State Financial Relations, which makes it clear that the Commonwealth has no intention of cutting aggregate specific purpose payments. States will be financially better off under the new arrangements provided by the tax reform package. The GST will provide growth funding for state revenues, giving states access to additional funding which they can apply to providing better services for the community.

The member for Kingston spoke of the reduction of financial assistance grants through state fiscal contributions to the Commonwealth over the last four years. I would like to inform him that the states have agreed to various methods of deficit reduction, none of which involves a reduction in expenditure to schools. There is no evidence to suggest that the level of financial assistance grants applied by states to schooling was reduced during this time. The member for Kingston also stated that this government's first budget made a general cut to direct Commonwealth funding for education by applying an efficiency dividend to the Commonwealth. I can assure the House that no efficiency dividend was applied to Commonwealth schools specific purpose payments. The fact is that the two million government school students in this country are supported by a combined annual budget from Commonwealth and state governments of $13 billion.

Despite the rhetoric and misinformation distributed by education unions and their political wing—the Australian Labor Party—this government is spending a record amount on schools. The Commonwealth's contribution to this $13 billion in direct funding for schools is a record $1.9 billion in the year 2000. This is a 25 per cent, or $382 million, increase over 1996 funding levels—which, of course, was the last year of the Labor government.

Government schools get 85 per cent of their public funding from state governments and 15 per cent from the Commonwealth. Non-government schools get 18 per cent of their public funding from state governments and 37 per cent from the Commonwealth. The federal budget reflects these funding arrangements, which have evolved over the last 30 years. A similar pattern of government and non-government expenditure was evident in Labor's education budgets without campaigning or complaint from the Education Union. All state budgets are overwhelmingly in favour of government schools, but no-one claims that state governments are opposed to non-government schools for this reason. When all sources of public funding are taken into account—Commonwealth and state—these governments spend on average $5,600 on a government school student. The same figure, on average, for a non-government school student is $3,500. In wealthier schools, this figure can be as low as $1,500 per student.

The fact is that parents who choose to send their children to private schools have already paid taxes that go towards the provision of public schooling. Some would argue that they effectively pay twice for their children's education, save taxpayers a fortune and free up public sector resources. Because funding will now be based on the socioeconomic mix of students at a school, non-government schools which extend their services to lower income communities will benefit financially. More families will have a choice of schooling.

The real benefit of this reform will go to the majority of students in non-government schools that serve the most disadvantaged communities. These typically include small private Catholic schools such as St Margaret Mary's at Croydon Park, St Gabriel's at Enfield and St Brigid's at Kilburn—all in my electorate of Adelaide. I might add that I am proud to be part of a government that has thrown its support behind these schools, the children who attend them and their parents. I have been astounded that the Australian Labor Party has attacked these measures—measures that some would claim benefit Labor's heartland and that others, as you would understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, would say support Howard's battlers.

The truth is that there have been no cuts to school programs in any of the Howard government budgets. Education will be GST free, funding for schools is at a record level, and yet these efforts are still attacked. This is because the Australian Education Union is totally opposed to any education reform, whether it comes from the Commonwealth or from state governments. Nowhere is this better seen than in my own state of South Australia. Janet Giles, State President of the Australian Education Union, has not had a positive thing to say about either state or federal government initiatives to provide both parents and schools with more choice about the type of educational environment they want for their children.

The union leadership has attacked Commonwealth and state efforts to raise literacy and numeracy standards and has never endorsed the national goal of the national literacy and numeracy plan. The union has opposed all attempts by state governments to provide better reporting to parents on their children's schooling. The union consistently denies that parents have any right to choice in schooling and has campaigned against any funding for non-government schools. The union has fought against attempts to give schools greater control over their own affairs. And the union has contested state government efforts to sack incompetent teachers and to make teachers more accountable for the outcome of their teaching.

It is ironic that the same unions that claim government schools are underfunded are opposed to greater parental involvement in schooling, to the payment of voluntary fees in government schools, even by those who could well afford it, and to more corporate sponsorship of government schools. These are all mechanisms that would increase the resources available to government schools. I would remind the Australian Labor Party and the Education Union that the last Commonwealth budget delivered $320 million in election commitments. For government schools, it delivered an extra $32 million for literacy in the middle years of schooling, $64 million additional for literacy and numeracy in the early years, $61 million additional for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools strategy, $54 million for a Quality Teacher Program in government schools, $13.8 million for a school drug education strategy and $13.7 million assistance for isolated children.

At the cost of defending parental choice, especially for low socioeconomic families, the ALP have aligned themselves with the Teachers Union. They stand against choice, flexibility and greater opportunity. The primary responsibility for decision making in the area of education must be to the welfare of students and parents—not vested and marginal interests like those of the teacher unions.

Some members of the Labor backbench, such as the member for Werriwa, know and understand this. In his article in the Financial Review earlier this week, he lauds an approach to politics that bypasses sectional interest groups and emphasises the importance of getting results. He heralds the death of the old predictable politics of the traditional Left and Right. What better example of sectional, ideologically outdated politics is there than the ALP's approach to school funding? It is opportunistic, negative, inflexible and driven by the dictates of the union. The member for Werriwa also talks about how the electorate is looking for new ideas based on incentives and responsibilities. I would argue that the greatest responsibility you can provide citizens in modern society is that of choice. In educating our young, all parents must weigh up the types of values, educational opportunities and subject emphasis they want for their children. This is both their right and their responsibility, and it is the role of the state to provide the choice between a healthy private and public sector.

As for the member for Werriwa's comments today on a national effort to improve liter acy—the innovative use of former teachers to go into schools to teach literacy—I would hope that the Australian Education Union is as supportive of such a strategy as the member for Werriwa. This bill is another example of the government's firm commitment to quality schooling, whether it is in the private or public sector. It is aimed unashamedly at the wellbeing of students and the enhancement of their parents' choice.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation for the bill and proposed amendments announced.