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Tuesday, 9 October 1984
Page: 1960


Mr MILTON(10.07) —The present debate on the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill 1984 and the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1984 gives me the opportunity to express my views about the public funding which the Commonwealth Government provides for government and non-government schools. Unfortunately my time is limited and therefore I will not be able to deal with the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Bill 1984 which is also being covered in the cognate debate on these Bills.

It is, of course, a fact that public education began in the early nineteenth century. Prior to that time only the merchants and the aristrocrats had the private resources to provide an education for their children. Public education in Australia has now grown to the extent that it comprises an estimated $1,385m of the Commonwealth Budget for schools programs in the States and Northern Territory in the 1985 calender year.

The Commonwealth Government recognises that it has a primary obligation to public schools but, as the Minister for Finance (Mr Dawkins) indicated in his second reading speech, it has also formally acknowledged the existence of a dual system of education in Australia and the Bill provides for this dual system. Whilst I can accept that we have a dual system of private and public education in Australia, I also draw attention to the fact that the Australian Labor Party has a national education policy which has the objective of funding schools in accordance with the principles of needs. Indeed, the policy goes further when it states 'that the Schools Commission will have regard to the primary obligation of governments to provide and maintain government school systems of the highest standard open to all children and the need for an adequate Commonwealth contribution towards this objective'.

Of course, when consideration is being given to the provision of funding for education it is also necessary to include the provision of funding provided by the State governments, and to a minor extent the cost of local government services such as the maintenance of swimming pools and playing fields. It is also necessary to include taxation concessions and rebates which confer a greater benefit on private schools than on government schools because the parents of private school students who gain such taxation relief are, generally speaking, better off and able to pay out higher education costs in fees and donations which attract the taxation relief.

If we examine the 1984 appropriation of $1,290m, we find that $573m was for government schools, $679m for private schools and $38m for joint programs for all schools. But other benefits to private schools are often overlooked. The tax deductibility of donations to school building funds is a major segment of taxation expenditure on private schools and, estimated on the basis of $19m in 1981-82, would be at least $25m for 1983-84. Concessional rebates are another significant segment of taxation relief with almost 6 per cent of taxpayers being eligible for concessional rebates. It is likely, therefore, that at least one member of most families with students at higher fee private schools would have $ 250 of each of their children's school fees and other expenses paid by the public via taxation expenditure on the concessional rebate.

Teacher training is another cost which is borne by the taxpayer, as the Commonwealth Government fully funds the training of all teachers, whether eventually employed in public or private schools. Finally, there are the allowances under the secondary allowance scheme which are payable to students at private schools. The total allocation for private school students from the secondary allowance scheme is estimated at $10m.

I mentioned previously that State government funding must also be taken into account when the public funding of education is being analysed. In the case of the Victorian State Government, in 1983-84 per capita grants to private schools totalled $115m and other direct grants were about $20m. The Education Department also spends about $30m on the various services which it provides to private schools. Private schools, unlike the public schools, are also exempt from the State payroll tax and land taxes, with a total loss to revenue of about $40m in 1983-84. Local government also provides relief from rate expenditures for private schools, provides school crossing supervisors and maintains community facilities for both public and private schools.

The plain fact is that when all the major components of public funding for private schools are taken into consideration, the public school system is forced into a residual funding role. This fact is obviously behind a comment in the minority report of Schools Commissioner Joan Brown, contained in the 1984 Commonwealth Schools Commission report entitled 'Funding Policies for Australian Schools'. Joan Brown stated:

The arguments mounted in the majority report involve in my opinion, a grave distortion of the principle that it is the right of all children to have equal access to an education that is profitable and successful, for this undisputed right has been recast in terms of an entitlement to the resources necessary to achieve this purpose.

If this new construction of children's rights to education were accepted, it would carry the implication that the Government has equal responsibility for both the Government and non-Government school sectors. This clearly diminishes the meaning of the term 'primary obligation' in relation to government schools. It would also imply that parents who choose not to avail themselves of public provided schooling need bear none of the cost of exercising such a choice. This is obviously inequitable.

Schools Commissioner Van Davy made an even stronger comment in his minority report when he stated:

The Commission has endorsed the right of wealthy schools to continue receiving government subsidies, even at the expense of students in much poorer schools. There can be no justification for the Commission's decision, as it is in clear conflict with the Government's election promise for a definite phase down in 1984 and 1985, within a general policy of complete phase out by 1987.

I have quoted from the minority reports of two of the 12 Schools Commissioners because their comments are particularly relevant. When the value of personal income tax expenditure on private schooling is taken into account, excluding the taxation expenditure of State governments' pay-rolls, land taxes and local government rate rebates and services, the private cost of private schools is only about 30 per cent of the level in the late 1960s. It is the dramatic fall in the private price of private schooling which is the major explanation for the rapidly increasing enrolments in the private school system. I am indebted to the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association for bringing these facts to my attention.

The original reason for Commonwealth Government funding for private schools was to assist the poorer schools in lifting their educational standards. However, the original concept has been undermined by two trends. One trend has been the expansion of the private school sector so that instead of a rise in the standards of the poor private schools we have witnessed a large increase in the number of poor private schools. The second trend has been the reduction of the private effort, in the ways I have already indicated, so that as government grants have increased private funding has decreased.

An additional problem is the concept of the community standard which has been produced as an ideal basket of teaching services, derived from the contributions of State governments and school communities in conjunction with the Commonwealth 's general recurrent grants program. As I see it, and I agree with Commissioner Joan Brown here, the only acceptable standard which should be used to determine the level of general recurrent resources for private schools must be the standard costs of government schools. With the special nature and wider responsibilities of the government schools system the resource level targets for private schools should be less than the standard government school costs.

For Victoria the acceptance of the community standard concept means that there must inevitably be a redistribution away from Victorian post-primary schools to those States, such as Queensland and Western Australia, which have shown less commitment to the recurrent funding of government schools. In addition, as Commissioner Van Davy has pointed out in his minority report, there is nothing in the Schools Commission guidelines to prohibit the substitution of Commonwealth funding for State funding or ensuring that State governments provide the community standard target resource package of services in every school. The Schools Commission report entitled 'Standards for Australian Schools ' is a useful document but it should not be treated as more than a first look at the standards of the Australian public and private school system.

Regretfully, I can see a long period of industrial unrest amongst teachers and ancillary staff in the government school system if the community standard concept, in its present form, is enforced. It is, of course, true that the Commonwealth Government will be monitoring the resource levels of private schools to ensure that private resources are not hidden so that a particular school can qualify for more than its share of appropriate Commonwealth funding. I am concerned, however, that the accountability guidelines may be too flexible and consequently allow private schools to avoid providing all the necessary information needed to determine the value of private effort and funds received.

Unfortunately, my allotted speaking time has now expired, but I think I have at least signalled to the Government the concerns I have as to whether the present distribution of Commonwealth funding will be allocated on the basis of educational need.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Administrator recommending appropriation announced.