Private Schools in Australia Share in Public Largess

By David J. Hoff — May 12, 2004 7 min read
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Geelong Grammar School outside Melbourne, Australia, has many of the trappings of American boarding schools: a challenging curriculum, a wide variety of extracurricular activities, lush athletic fields, and famous alumni—the current prince of Wales among them.

For their part, parents get healthy tuition bills from the school despite an active fund-raising foundation that defrays some of the costs.

But the Australian primary and secondary school, and others like it, get something no American private school has: a substantial federal government subsidy.

For more than a generation, the Australian government has been giving per-pupil grants to private schools of all types—religious ones included—to underwrite the costs of educating students who otherwise might be attending government schools.

The funding has helped preserve Roman Catholic schools, which were facing a financial crisis in the 1960s when the federal government started to aid them, and it has made other private schools affordable to a broader range of families.

At the same time, though, the federal aid has produced a small but steady enrollment shift out of government schools—as Australia calls its public schools—and into private ones.

As the country prepares for parliamentary elections, likely to occur by October, its three leading political parties are debating just how much of a government subsidy schools such as Geelong ought to receive.

The opposition Labor Party says that the current government has been too generous to the private and religious schools, leaving the public schools without enough money to address the needs of some of the hardest students to educate. But the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister John Howard, contends that the private schools are worth subsidizing. The government cites research suggesting that schools that emphasize moral and religious values are more effective than others at educating students.

Four-Year Plan

The ruling coalition—members of the Liberal and Nationals parties—decided in March the amount each school in the country will receive for the next four years.

Under the four-year plan announced by the Howard government, independent schools, which serve 450,000 students, will receive $7.6 billion (about $5.6 billion U.S.), compared with the $7.2 billion ($5.3 billion U.S.) for the public schools that serve 2.25 million students.

The funding plan “is just a continuation of the Howard government’s unfair funding system that gives large funding increases to the wealthy elite schools that need it the least,” Jenny Macklin, the shadow minister for employment, education, and training and the deputy leader of the Labor Party, charged in a statement after the funding scheme was announced.

But the ruling coalition says that the arguments against private school funding ignore the fact that public schools receive a majority of their money from the state governments. In combined federal and state money, public schools will get $19.9 billion Australian in government funds this year—more than three times as much as private schools.

Geelong Grammar School, for example, receives $2,300 per student in the current budget year. It ranks 2,489th of the 2,652 schools in the country in federal funding, according to the Education Ministry.

“Every child in a Catholic or independent school receives less public funding than they would in a public state school,” Brendan Nelson, the minister for education, science, and training and a member of the Liberal Party, said in a recent statement reacting to criticism of the funding.

In this election season, both sides are using the issue to attract voters. The Australian Education Union, which traditionally supports the Labor Party, has been running an advertising campaign criticizing the government for increasing funding for elite schools such as Geelong at a rate faster than the public schools are seeing.

“It isn’t the role of the government to subsidize a private system that is in competition with a government system,” said Pat Byrne, the president of the 160,000-member union, which represents public school teachers. “The effect of the government policy is to, in fact, widen the discrepancy between rich and poor.”

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party’s recent school funding plan allocated an extra $390 million to Catholic schools over the next four years—an act that political observers say is an attempt to sway one of Labor’s key voting blocs.

At least one knowledgeable observer doubts that what has become a perennial issue will be a deciding factor in the upcoming elections.

Overshadowing school funding will be the Howard government’s support for the Iraq war, said Michael Hogan, an honorary research associate in government and international relations at the University of Sydney.

As in other parliamentary democracies, the prime minister sets the date for national elections. The country’s Constitution requires only that the next occur between this coming August and next April.

If the Liberal and Nationals coalition retains a majority of seats in parliament, Mr. Howard will remain prime minister. If the Labor Party wins, Mark Latham, the party’s leader, will become prime minister.

What’s ‘Establishment’?

Australia’s public schools are run by the country’s six states and two territories. They provide about 83 percent of the $20.9 billion (Australian) spent in public schools in the current school year. One Australian dollar is equivalent to about 73 cents in U.S. currency.

Unlike in the United States, though, local communities don’t have much influence over the government schools. Instead, the states and territories adopt the curriculum and negotiate statewide teacher contracts. About 68 percent of Australia’s 3.3 million elementary and secondary students attend the government schools, according to the federal Education Ministry.

Some Australian communities, though, form their own private, or independent, schools to provide an alternative to the government schools. Other independent schools tend to be elite boarding schools. Still others are rooted in religious education. About 14 percent of the country’s students attend a total of more than 1,000 independent schools.

The country also has a thriving Roman Catholic system of education, with 1,600 schools serving 607,000 students, about 18 percent of the country’s total. The Catholic Church operates its own school system in each state and territory.

Such schools receive federal subsidies even though the Australian Constitution adopted in 1900 contains a prohibition against a state-established religion, using language similar to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that governments should limit the types and amount of aid to schools run by religious organizations. As a result, private schools in the United States receive very little public money—almost none in the form of general aid.

In 2002, however, the Supreme Court ruled that states could provide tuition vouchers to students to attend religious schools in Ohio, a landmark decision that could result in additional financial help for religious schools in the United States. (“Justices Settle Case, Nettle Policy Debate,” July 10, 2002.)

The Australian High Court approved its country’s funding system in 1980, when government school advocates challenged it.

“‘Establishing any religion’ has been interpreted literally, in the sense of setting up a state church,” Mr. Hogan, the University of Sydney political scientist, wrote in an e-mail. “Giving funding to churches to do state-approved activities such as running schools is not seen as ‘establishment.’ Why should it? From over here, American legal interpretations of the equivalent part of your Constitution often seem quite bizarre.”

‘Fully Accountable’

Australia’s private school advocates say the government funding offsets the costs of educating children who otherwise would be attending government schools, an argument similar to one used in the United States.

One major difference is that private schools in Australia take part in the country’s testing program and accountability system in exchange for the financial aid.

“We have no problem with accountability,” said Susan Pascoe, the executive director of the Catholic Commission of Victoria, based in Melbourne. “We’re fully transparent and fully accountable.”

At the same time, Ms. Pascoe said in a telephone interview, Catholic and other religious schools are free to teach about their faiths.

“We haven’t lost independence,” she said.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Private Schools in Australia Share in Public Largess


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