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May 08th 2017 print

Peter Smith

Spending and Schools: Chalk and Cheese

Schooling will remain an inefficient, duplicating, buck-passing amalgam of federal and state incompetencies. Bad teachers will draw their salaries. Dumbing-down will get worse. Further vast sums will pursue chimeras, and do you know what? Kids won't be any smarter, probably less so

school teacher IICall me Rip Van Winkle. I bin a’snoozin’ through the deficit and debt imbroglio and have woken to a land of milk an’ honey. It is a land where two per cent and more of GDP is spent on defence, the NDIS is paid for, hospital queues have vanished, and billions more can be spent on schools without qualm. And there’s more. The chap that devised an impractical and unaffordable scheme in the dark days of debt and deficit in 2013 is back again to tell the government how to spend the newly-minted pot of money.

Madness reprised is madness indeed.

Let me cut to the quick. Spending on education (and also on health, by the way) is a bottomless pit. Enough will never be enough. How about this for a guiding principle; applicable no less to governments than to businesses and individuals. Don’t spend money you don’t have unless you can earn a profitable return on borrowed funds.

If you think that borrowing in order to increase federal spending on schools from $17.5 billion in 2017 to $30.6 billion in 2027 will bring any return in hard cash, or even in maths marks, then you are living in cloud-cuckoo land. Stranger still, you might be living in an even more exotic land occupied by Tanya Plibersek. Ms Plibersek apparently believes that this massive increase in funding is a massive cut. It is a massive cut because it is massively less than the even more massively unaffordable increase in funding promised by Labor.

Madness of the fiscal kind knows no bounds at all in the minds of the Labor faithful.

Apparently Malcolm Turnbull and David Gonski are mates. It tells. This what Mr Gonski reportedly said in 2011 when chairing the panel to Review the Funding of Schooling established by the Gillard government: “The panel believes that the focus on equity should be ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possession.”

This is a typical statement of those rich businessmen, à la Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who slip into socialist shibboleths in later life. Perhaps as atonement for getting rich? Who knows?

Memo to anyone of commonsense: Wealth will always influence educational outcomes. That’s life in the free-market and life is much the better for it. Governments should keep their noses out of it and avoid hiring people prone to making collectivist statements.

The job of government is to ensure that taxpayers’ funds are distributed fairly to public and private schools. Getting into the weeds of allocating funds on the basis of the perceived socio-economic circumstances of students is akin to affirmative action. It is ineffective, discriminatory, distorting and unfair. And, of course, it results in the creation of barely understandable complex messes which later governments have to clean up. To be clear, in saying this I am abstracting from children with special needs who do require discrimination in their favour.

Let me occupy my own cloud cuckoo land. The amount the federal government spends on schools should return to its level during the last year when Australia ran a surplus (2007-08); adjusted annually for subsequent increases in full-time average weekly earnings and student numbers. I don’t precisely know what this trajectory of spending would come to. I do know that it would be considerably less than it is now.

So far as I recall students were doing no worse in 2007-08 than now. Consideration could be given to increasing funding further when the government again starts paying its way. Now that’s a novel thought.

There is nothing like a shortage of money to focus the mind. With less money to spend, school administrators would need to pare down curriculums, rid them of much exotica, and put more focus on ‘the three Rs’. This could be reinforced in public schools by a policy of rewarding principals and teachers whose pupils excelled in standardised national tests and of penalising those whose pupils performed dismally. Once again Australia might best Kazakhstan in maths.

Of course the entire responsibility for schooling should be passed to the states and territories. But that is beyond even my vivid imagination to contemplate. So back to real life: Schooling will stay as an inefficient, duplicating, buck-passing, amalgam of federal and state governance. Curriculums will remain crowded. Bad teachers will draw their salaries. The federal government will continue to spend vast sums of money it doesn’t have in pursuit of chimeras.

This particular chimera is that throwing money at schools will improve educational outcomes which, in turn, will apparently boost economic growth in the telescopic future. It is a stretch beyond satire. Governments should spend within their means on schools and, within that constraint; focus on how to get good teachers, teaching a core curriculum. C’mon that’s too hard. It’s simpler to spend more borrowed money.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Comments [13]

  1. milto1 says:

    Far too sensible.

  2. gray_rm says:

    Hmm. I’m afraid Peter makes an error of judgement:
    “With less money to spend, school administrators would need to pare down curriculums, rid them of much exotica, and put more focus on ‘the three Rs’. ”
    I’m afraid there’s very little chance a shortening of funds would do that.
    Rather, I’d wager the idiocy of Safe Schools and Aboriginal ‘connexion ‘ with the land would be the few things to remain- after all, the kids have to learn the essentials!

  3. Patrick McCauley says:

    Education (Teaching) has not just been overrun by left think … but also … by women. Mostly green lefty feminist women … badly educated in the madness of ‘gender’ ‘equity’ ‘hatred of men’ etc. Our children are being educated by a silent simulated ‘matriarchy’… whilst being expected to live and work in a token ‘patriarchy’ The solution may well involve some positive discrimination/ quotas etc to build the numbers of male teachers back up to at least thirty or forty percent.. Either that, or decide once and for all … to become a fully operational democratic liberal matriarchy.

  4. Lacebug says:

    The fact will always remain that children who live in affluent areas with affluent parents will ALWAYS perform better than their poorer brethren. This is NOTHING to do with school funding and everything to do with the role that parents have in shaping their child’s attitude to education. No amount of funding can make up for the fact that poorer parents are not as engaged with education and do not value it as highly.

  5. Ian MacDougall says:

    With less money to spend, school administrators would need to pare down curriculums, rid them of much exotica, and put more focus on ‘the three Rs’. This could be reinforced in public schools by a policy of rewarding principals and teachers whose pupils excelled in standardised national tests and of penalising those whose pupils performed dismally. Once again Australia might best Kazakhstan in maths.

    We see this already in NAPLAN. Teachers are teaching to maximise their own students’ scores in the test, and so defeating the purpose of the test. (This is why psychologists keep the details of IQ tests secret, as there have been mavericks who have set themselves up in business as IQ test coaches.) The implication also here is that Australia should always beat that backwater called Kazakhstan in maths. (I mean, they are all Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians or some other crazy religion, who can’t even speak English.)

    Religion is the glue that holds any society or group however defined together. It follows that in a religious ritual, the group worships its own identity. That is, it worships itself. Hence it is vital that there be no doctrinal dissension within the group. The faithful do not need to know the details of what they believe, as long as they understand that they do all believe it together, and believe they all believe it, 100 per cent.
    Thus the Founding Fathers of Christianity in the first 500 years of its history worked out The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed : statements of the Faith’s core essentials, that their congregations could all recite from memory together; while at the same time discouraging the literate members of those congregations from reading Holy Scripture. (You never know where that might lead.) Conversely, in the history of Christianity, many a preacher has made some doctrinal issue a point to exit the whole thing from: eg total immersion at baptism vs partial immersion.

    To be clear, in saying this I am abstracting from children with special needs who do require discrimination in their favour.

    These are ‘special needs’ as officially defined. But the definition can be widened. Einstein had ‘special needs’.

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    Yes among Einsteins special needs were beautiful female companions.

  7. Warty says:

    The problems are complex and multifold. It is not just the funding, as other suggest, but also the Labor/Green inspired curriculum, which indoctrinates generations of potential Green voters (and somehow the Coalition simply don’t see that they will be voting themselves out of office with this increased funding).
    But we also have the problems with discipline, and the weird irony of parents (who cannot control their own children at home) supporting their children over and above the poor teachers that have to teach the little monsters (the same ones the parents can’t control). So the teacher organises a conference between him or herself and the metro parents, but can’t convey anything to the self satisfied parents, who blindly defend their purer than the driven snow kids. Welcome to ‘Australian education’ today. I know, an oxymoron for morons.

  8. ArthurB says:

    My wife used to be a teacher, some of both my and her relatives and in-laws are in the profession, as are some of our friends. I also used to mix with the teachers at the Catholic schools which our children attended. I have to say that all of the teachers whom I know are dedicated to the profession, and work hard at trying to give their pupils a good education.

    I don’t know of any who are cultural Marxists, in fact most of the teachers that I have met are socially conservative, even though some vote Labor. I suspect that the radicals are entrenched in the education bureaucracies, and in the teachers’ unions, which they have colonised as part of the “long march through the institutions,” and they are responsible for pushing radical and Green-Left agendas and programs such as Safe Schools.

    I am puzzled as to why the teachers that I know are not resisting the push by the radicals to brainwash students. Also, the Catholic Church and its education bureaucracy seem to be passive, even though so much of what they are expected to implement is totally against Catholic theology and culture. What would B.A. Santamaria say, if he were alive today?

    I should add that the remarks above apply mainly to teachers in the Catholic system.

  9. Keith Kennelly says:

    Ian

    How did I just know you’d envy Einstein’s wit?

  10. pgang says:

    How’s this for a new tax model:

    1. The States set and collect all taxes.
    2. The Commonwealth is given a (small) percentage of State taxes for our national defence.

    Because why do we even have a federal education or health department? Under this model, the States must compete against each other.