With our first tough budget looming, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) has just released a controversial report School Funding On A Budget. It recommends ways that we can spend less on education while still improving student performance.
The Centre for Independent Studies is a think tank established in 1976 by former maths teacher Greg Lindsay. Its opinions matter because it has a track record of influencing conservative government policy. Think tanks (on both sides of the political spectrum) push the boundaries of public debate to the extreme, thereby making political decisions appear more moderate than the think tank’s radical views. Therefore, whether you agree with the recommendations or not, they can provide insight into the direction education in Australia is headed.
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School Funding On A Budget: Why This Report Now?
We are surrounded by government debt, and everyone involved is looking for ways to cut spending or raise revenue. With this in mind, the School Funding On A Budget report is driven by a belief that:
- throwing money into education has not led to improvements in student outcomes
- the government needs to focus on getting more bang for its buck, rather than on throwing even more money down the drain
- the education sector should not be immune to across the board cuts needed to reign in the budget deficit.
What Does the School Funding On A Budget Report Suggest?
Faced with the emerging reality of tight budgets, yet with a desire to improve how well our students perform in school, the report makes the following 8 suggestions.
- Revise the federal government funding model.
The report suggests keeping Gonski’s idea of a base amount per student, plus an equity loading based on higher needs. However, it implies a desire to reduce the dollar amount allocated. It also wants a more uniform model across states and systems. This is something Gonski himself wanted, but it went out the window amidst the political negotiations to get Gonski’s recommendations implemented.
- Abolish the federal Department of Education.The CIS report highlights cost associated with duplicating education bureaucracy at both the federal and state level – a common issue across many government services.
- Reduce the cost of state and territory bureaucracy.
There are two types of costs in education: in-school costs, such as teacher salaries, resources and utilities; and, out-of-school costs, such as central and regional office staff. Some states, like NSW, spend less than 4% of their money on out-of-school expenses. Other states spend over 8%. The CIS report recommends limiting out-of-school costs in all states to 4%.
- Remove mandatory class sizes and eschew class-size reduction policies.
Teacher salaries make up the bulk of education costs. The report claims that since the 1960s, the number of teachers has increased faster than the number of students due to our desire to reduce class sizes; however, class sizes have little impact on student results. Therefore, the report recommends reducing teacher numbers in schools with over 200 students while giving principals the flexibility to structure classes as they please. Schools with 200-400 students would lose 1 teacher, schools with 400-600 students would lose 2 teachers, schools with 600-1000 students would lose 3 teachers and schools with 1000+ students would lose 4 teachers.
- Provide bursaries for low-income students to use at non-government schools.
While this may sound like a strange way to make money, the government spends far more on a student enrolled in a state school than they do on a student enrolled in a non-government school. This difference is so large that if 10% of low-income earners took up the bursary, it would not only cost the government nothing, it would save them $100 million dollars.
- Charge high-income families to attend government schools.
The obvious savings have a positive impact on the budget’s bottom line, but the logic behind it may need some explaining. The report argues that high-income families can afford to send their children to a school of their choice, and therefore, they are choosing the state system. Their choice results in the government spending more money on their children than the government would have done had the family chosen to send their children to a non-government school. By charging families earning over $130,000 a $1,000 per child if they choose to send them to a state school, the government would save $250 million.
- Reduce the oversupply of teachers by elevating entry standards to teaching degrees.
The federal government funds higher education. The report argues that raising the entry standards to teaching degrees will lift teacher standards. It would also result in less people entering the teaching profession, fewer university places being funded by the government and a whopping $256 million dollars in savings. The smaller number of teachers entering the profession is made workable through point 4 on class sizes.
- Give principals the power to hire and fire teachers.
The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Therefore, holding principals to account for student results while giving them no say in which teachers work in their school is unfair and unworkable. The report argues that principals should be able to recruit and hire teachers while offering tailored salaries to suit their circumstances (e.g. offering higher salaries to attract teachers in hard to fill positions). Principals should also be given the power to readily dismiss ineffective teachers.
While I seriously doubt that the eight recommendations of the School Funding On A Budget report will be adopted as they are by any government, they may give us insight into the direction we will be heading – especially if faced with consecutive liberal governments. Recommendation 1 has already raised its head with Christopher Pyne’s desire to review the Better Schools funding arrangements. I predict that while some recommendations won’t ever see the light of day, others will be brought to life in more moderate forms (e.g. massive cuts to the federal education department and a freeze on class sizes in the next round of EB agreements).