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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 90

Senator NETTLE (7:31 PM) —I rise to continue my speech in the second reading debate on the Schools Assistance (Learning Together—Achievement Through Choice and Opportunity) Bill 2004 and the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. The facts are incontrovertible: this government has poured buckets of money into the private school system. How has this happened? It has happened because the Howard government introduced a funding arrangement four years ago which it Orwellianly named the socioeconomic status, or SES, model. The government claims that it gives money to those schools which educate the poorest in our community on the basis of socioeconomic need, yet the rich schools end up with massively more money than they were getting before and they are not the schools that are educating the poorest people in our community. It is an absolutely bizarre outcome for a model that the government claims is about equity when we see more government funding going into the wealthiest private schools.

The SES funding model was a rort from the outset which has only got worse over time. In fact, it is a double rort. Firstly, the use of census districts to measure socioeconomic status is about as reliable as using your shoe size to pick a footy team. Just because the average income of your neighbours is low does not mean that yours will be. In reality, those who can afford to send their children to schools which charge annual fees of over $10,000 are the higher income earners in their area, not the average or lower income earners. This means, for example, that boarders from rural New South Wales at the King's School are more likely to be the sons of large land owners, but under the government's system they attract a subsidy based on the income of their father's tenants. Secondly, the government has rorted its own system to ensure that, if schools are still worse off—compared to the existing government subsidies—after this warped logic of the SES funding model has been applied, their funding is maintained and indexed at their overfunded levels.

The system gets worse still in this legislation. This legislation introduces the Catholic systemic school into the SES funding model. The minister will tell us that Catholic systemic schools are now part of the SES system, but this is totally misleading. In reality, all government money goes not to individual Catholic schools but, instead, centrally to the Catholic boards of education. They get the money based on a notional—or, in other words, made up—SES score of 96 and then they distribute the money as they see fit. Additionally, 60 per cent of Catholic systemic schools are notionally funding maintained—that is, the SES funding model says that they are overfunded and yet the government intends for them to be able to continue the funding they are receiving at what it perceives to be an overfunded level.

Catholic system schools will get an additional boost of over $360 million as a result of this legislation. But there is no guarantee that this money will find its way to the most needy of Catholic schools, because the money is paid in a lump sum to the Catholic boards of education, who then distribute it according to their own model of need—not based on even the government's bodgie SES system, which is designed to have some concept of need as a part of it. Private schools get to pick and choose students—and have lower operating costs as a result, because they can choose not to educate the most disadvantaged or those students needing the most assistance—yet they continue to get generous rises in public subsidy even when their estimated per student expenditure is already on average 15 per cent higher than that of government schools and in many cases much more than 15 per cent higher.

The situation is clearly perverse, but this legislation takes us on a trajectory that makes this inequity a whole lot worse. The Swinburne University of Technology study that I mentioned earlier projected that, within seven years at the current rates, governments will be providing more funding to private schools than to public schools. I will say that once more: in seven years time, at the current funding rates, governments will be providing more funding to private schools than to public schools. Considering the lengths that the government has gone to to ensure big funding increases to private schools, we should not be too surprised to see rising student enrolments in private schools. But funding is only half the picture. The other key problem is the government's portrayal of public schools as inferior and, in the Prime Minister's words, `values neutral'. Public schools and public school teachers teach important values such as equity, respect and celebration of diversity. These are important values and it is unfortunate that the government and the Prime Minister do not recognise these values as important.

I remind the Senate of the quite illuminating views of the minister for workplace relations's chief of staff, Mr Kevin Donnelly, who in a recent book and accompanying articles describes public schools as homes for `feminist, multicultural and neo-Marxist' theories. He reminds us:

... many parents would consider the sexual practices of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals decidedly unnatural and that such groups have a greater risk in terms of transmitting STDs and AIDS.

Are these the sorts of values that the Prime Minister would like to see public school teachers promoting? Clearly these are the views of the chief of staff of one of his frontbench cabinet ministers. Not only is this comment homophobic but the intention is clearly to imply that teaching a celebration of diversity is wrong and that somehow public schools are in the business of forwarding partisan political agendas.

This is part of a propaganda war against the public school system and it has the two-pronged objective of encouraging enrolments in private schools and introducing intolerant, conservative values into public schools. The flagpole requirement in this bill is an example of this government's values approach—specifically a myopic vision of patriotism. The Greens are appalled at this state of affairs. Our policies, as suggested in our amendment to the second reading of this bill, which I will foreshadow at the end of my contribution, are targeted at turning this around to firmly establish that the government's primary responsibility should be to the public school system and that it should act to ensure that public schools can offer the best education available, which is what governments are elected to do.

The Greens advocate significant increases in funding for public schools from all levels of government and we also expect all levels of government to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for our public schools. This bill should be rejected in its entirety to allow alternative legislation that achieves these goals to be brought before the Senate. The Greens say that a new and alternative bill should abolish all public funding to the wealthiest private schools and redirect this money to struggling public schools and that a full inquiry should be undertaken to examine whether the funding going to the rest of the private school system is the best way to spend our education tax dollars. In the meantime, the Greens say that the current generous levels of funding to the rest of the private school system ought to be frozen for four years while any inquiry is under way. The savings made here should be redirected into the public school system, including for a new priorities schools program, similar to the old disadvantaged school program, that would target the most needy of the public schools. Consider what a difference that would make to the educational outcomes in Australia. Over $6 million over the next four years would go to struggling public schools and students with special challenges rather than to the very wealthiest schools within the private school system.

The Greens believe the government should be telling parents about what great work is being done in public schools. I have been privileged to visit many public schools. One that I visited in southern Sydney, Menai High School, is doing fantastic work with Aboriginal students and with students who have particular interests in agriculture, art and aquaculture. A whole range of specialist needs and interests of the students at Menai High School are being catered for by a top-quality public education system with committed high school teachers at that school. These are the kinds of stories that parents should be hearing from the minister for education, not the criticisms coming from the minister and the Prime Minister and the comments coming from government staffers like Kevin Donnelly.

I know that the opposition shares some of the concerns that the Greens have in relation to this bill, and I heard comments about them before. But I also heard the Labor Party say that they will be supporting this bill. When I speak with teachers and parents, they tell me about their experiences under state Labor governments, and it has not left them full of confidence that a Labor government will become the champion of public education.

The future of schooling in Australia is at a crossroads. It is worth remembering the trajectory we are headed down. The Swinburne University study said that, if we continue at these current funding levels, in seven years time both state and federal governments will be putting more money into the private school sector than into the public school sector. That is not what governments are elected to do. Governments are not elected to put more public money into private schools rather than invest in a quality public education system that all students can access regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of any disability that they may have, regardless of their gender and regardless of their religion. Children should be able to access a quality public education system. It is the government's responsibility to fund that system. Yet we see this government going in totally the opposite direction by putting increasingly more funds into the private school sector. In seven years times, if it keeps going at this level, it will be putting even more money into the private school sector than into the public school sector.

At a time when, as a nation, we should be celebrating and supporting the role our public school system plays in teaching all Australians side by side about different cultures and living the values of celebrating diversity, we are not. This bill is about giving an additional government endorsement to what a parent, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, called the educational equivalent of a gated community—a gated community which says: some people cannot come in here.

This bill should not be titled `Learning Together'; it should be titled `Learning Apart' because that is a far more accurate description of the elitist approach which is inherent in this funding bill, which the Greens reject. We want the objective of providing the highest quality public education to Australian students to be returned to the top of the government's priorities. Education should not be reduced to one more consumer status symbol that the aspirational voter is encouraged to purchase. Education is a birthright of everyone. Quality public education is a birthright of everyone. The Greens will continue to struggle towards this goal of universal access to quality public education. The logic of the argument is too compelling, the justice of the outcome is too obvious and the benefit for all of our futures is too great for parliament or anyone else to do otherwise.

I will just take the opportunity now to foreshadow the Australian Greens amendment, which I will move later at the conclusion of the second reading debate. The amendment condemns the government for its attack on the reputation, quality and impeccable values of public education, for its failure to adequately fund public schools to achieve their full potential and its failure to act to address the drift in school enrolments away from public schools. It calls on the government to: establish in legislation that the first priority to guide federal schools policy is the welfare of the public school system; scrap the manifestly unfair SES funding system for non-government schools; abolish the nexus between funding for non-government schools and both the AGSRC and the number of children educated in private schools; redirect the funding currently going to the wealthiest private schools into the public school system; redirect the increases in funding to all other private schools back into the public school system; introduce a new schools policy to protect the viability of local public schools; act to make non-government schools as accountable as government schools for the government funds they receive; ensure that all Australians have access to free, high-quality public preschool education; recognise that the public school system educates nearly 90 per cent of Indigenous students and that as a result better support for public schools and public schoolteachers is vital. (Time expired)