Call 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.