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Wednesday, 2 November 1983
Page: 2245

Ms MAYER(7.10) —The matters I wish to discuss today concern the non- government funding part of the Commonwealth Schools Commission report for 1984. The matters regarding this which have been raised most frequently with me are the rights of parents under the United Nations declaration to send their children to a school of their choice, the reduction of per capita funding to 41 schools, and the accusation of sectarian divisiveness in the determination of per capita funding for non-government schools.

The rights of parents to send children to the schools of their choice is a right supported by this Government. The United Nations declaration does not require governments to fund schools-it simply requires them not to debar the right of choice-but this Government has accepted its responsibility to the extent of providing per capita grants on the basis of the needs of the school of choice. We believe that the quality of education of children should not be solely based on the depths of parental pockets, but on the standard which allows children the best possible opportunity to make use of their talents and qualities. Because of our belief in giving that opportunity, we have increased the per capita funding to most of the non-government schools and retained present funding for many, thus enabling parents to make a real choice. Across- the-board funding giving the same amount to schools regardless of the income of the schools is not supporting the United Nations declaration but, in fact, reducing choice of school to those who can choose to spend large amounts of money on their child's schooling. As far as parental choice is concerned, not only is the choice more open, but also those 41 schools which have had a reduction of 25 per cent in their per capita funding have a choice also. They can simply pass on that reduction to parents by increasing fees, or they can pare expensive programs without reducing the quality of education as government schools have had to do many times. The real commitment of those schools to their client body will be genuinely tested. The nexus about which so much has been said was a nexus of unfairness. We wish to establish a new nexus, a nexus between need and funding. We do not wish to have government funding in education underline the differences in society and the consequential differences in educational opportunity, but to provide funding for parental choice on a basis which will assist that choice.

I turn now to the argument that parents are taxpayers and therefore should have tax money returned to them at their choice. In no other area is such a proposition acceptable. All taxpayers pay for the defence capacity of this country whether or not they are pacifists. All taxpayers pay for public transport whether or not they choose to use it. All taxpayers pay for hospitals regardless of their need for hospitals, and so it is with education. All taxpayers pay for education, whether or not they choose to use the facilities provided by the Government. If they choose not to do so, it is arguable that that choice should be at the cost of the chooser. However, this Government is prepared to give a practical reality to parental choice. It is because we do not want children's education to be handicapped by parental choice made on bases other than education that we support non-government schools, most of them at an increased level.

Something has been said about the mystery of the choice of the 41 schools which received a reduction. I draw the attention of the House to the news release from the Schools Commission which gives the formula for that reduction. It has been readily available to everybody who wanted it-it was sent to every school-and any pretence of not understanding the basis of that reduction is simple nonsense, not to mention propaganda. It does not take into account the nature of the ownership of the school. It does not take into account anything but the private disposable cash income and the resources required to operate at the national average government school standards. That is what it takes into account. If that is divisive and sectarian, we have a very odd definition of those words.

The questions which have been raised in regard to the Government's decisions on funding for non-government schools have consistently ignored two main factors. The first is that the Government has provided the same funding for 1984 for 179 of 210 group 1 schools and increased funding for nearly 2,000 group 2 and 3 schools. That this increase can somehow be seen as a threat to those schools requires a somewhat strange sort of twisted logic, and is more a triumph for scare tactics than for clear thinking. That so many school principals and religious leaders have associated themselves with this kind of logic raises some concern about the nature of the education offered in some non-government schools .

The second factor is the acknowledged need for restraint in all government spending. The expenditure by the government on education is larger than on any program other than social security and defence. In every area of expenditure we have had to make decisions which we would not have had to make had we not come to government burdened with a huge deficit and the necessity to restore the economy to reasonable health as quickly as possible. Out of 2,200 schools, 41 have been asked, because they can do so without damaging the quality of their educational offering, to share the restraint, to be mindful of the rights of students in other non-government schools and to demonstrate their commitment to the ethic upon which they are based. Have these schools taken the opportunity to provide an example, provide the leadership they claim? Unfortunately, no. Instead we have a minority of schools attempting to use all non-government school communities in their selfish search for every cent they can squeeze out of the taxpayer. If those people took the trouble to spend some time in both government and non-government schools in working class and deprived areas and see the needs of the schools in those areas they would wonder what sort of government allowed, or even encouraged those inequities to exist.

This Government is committed to the reduction of inequity in education. It values the child of the poorest parents no less than the child of the richest and we do not want any child to be denied educational opportunity because of the income of the child's parents. I know that many parents are deeply concerned by the response to the funding guidelines. They do not wish to be associated with the noisy protests because they take their Christian values seriously and are concerned for the well being of children other than their own. They are deeply worried that church leaders appear to be protecting wealthy schools at the expense of the poorer ones. They have taken the trouble to inform themselves of the facts-such as the fact that 2,169 schools out of 2,200 are as well or better off under this Government. They are well aware that, if the 41 wealthiest schools in Australia pass on the whole of the reduction in recurrent funding to parents as fees, the cost will be $84 a year for a primary school child and $134 a year for a secondary school child. All the noise is about $134. It is about $ 134 worth of pastoral letters, accusations of sectarianism, angry people up in arms-$2.50 a week's worth of sound and fury. It is not $2.50 a week from those people who would find that difficult, but $2.50 a week from people who can already find up to $3,000 a year for school fees.

I do not doubt that many parents choose to do without things they would otherwise have in order to pay school fees, but that is the choice of all parents. We all do without something in order to provide for our children. We all appreciate the sacrifices that parents make in order to send their children to the school of their choice, but those sacrifices fall differentially now. To close the education gap, we are asking 41 schools to find $134 a year for each secondary school child-41 schools which now charge up to $3,000 a year for their services.

In conclusion, I repeat the facts: In 1984, 2,169 non-government schools will receive the same or increased recurrent funding and 41 schools, on the basis of their cash income, will receive a reduction of $83 a year for primary school children and $134 a year for secondary school children. That is the cost of two packets of cigaretts a week. The reduction was based on a formula having nothing at all to do with the ownership of the school. These facts simply do not support criticisms which have been made. They are a clear implementation of announced policy and evidence of our commitment to a fairer education system for all children.