Australian Public Schools Shamefully Underfunded


by Rob Kelly
Freelance Education Columnist

In Australia, government schools account for 65.7% of students in 2021. The states and territories are the primary public funder of the government sector in line with their constitutional responsibility. The Australian Government is the minority public funder. However, when you recognise that non-government schools account for only 34.3% of students in 2021, but enjoy an overabundance of government funding and financial support, it’s easy to see why so many public education advocates take umbrage with the model. Not only do non-government schools receive tremendous government funding, but also fees raised from parents and financiers; a luxury public schools do not enjoy.

Fees in government schools are recounted as voluntary contributions. This is because government legislation forbids public schools attaching mandatory parental fees to student enrolments. Many government schools are expected to operate in alarming conditions; shouldering limited teaching and learning resources, antiquated asbestos ridden infrastructure and enrolments of disadvantaged students doubling that of schools in the private sector.

The fact is that when considering expenditure per student, public schools come last to the investment enjoyed by the private sector, often by a factor of three or more. Since the Coalition came to power in 2013, this has increased and now runs to an investment shortfall of several billion dollars per year.

In a research paper written by Trevor Cobbold and published by Save Our Schools in June 2021, this underfunding is expected to continue for “…the rest of the decade under the current Commonwealth and State Government funding arrangements.” By the end of the decade, public schools will be underfunded by a gargantuan $60 billion while private schools will be overfunded by $6 billion.

When the Turnbull government was in power between 2015 to 2018, they cut billions of dollars from public schools. The then government delivered 20% of the funding needed to reach the minimum resource standard, while delivering 80% to private schools. The Morrison government has continued the trend by cutting billions of dollars from public schools. Let’s not forget Scott Morrison was also the Treasurer who stopped capital funding for government schools altogether in the Turnbull government.

Adjunct Associate Professor at Southern Cross University David Zyngier suggests removing all funding from any school that “…charges fees above its SRS then progressively removing funding from those schools charging fees lower than the SRS by day 10% per annum”, is one solution. “This allows non-governed schools to get their house in order or to become a public school.”

Underfunded government schools with smaller budgets, larger class sizes and fragmented teaching and learning programs see lower student achievement levels creating a socioeconomic problem within the education sector, but it seems that non-government schools can have their cake and eat it too.

Walkley award winner and public education advocate Jane Caro suggests, “Paying private school fees is dead money. Send your kids to the local public, get involved in the school and in fundraising. Your kids will do just as well and – if public school reputation increases – the value of your house will go up! What an investment!”

No matter where you are in the world, public education should form the framework and backbone of an equitable society, but there is a clear prejudice towards government schools in Australia.