In the seemingly never ending debate about the best way to fund our schools, relatively little consideration is given to the effects of the declining influence of state governments and the increasing exercise of power by the Commonwealth. However, in our discussions in the panel which reviewed school funding in Australia – the so-called Gonski review – state-commonwealth relations were, inevitably and necessarily, pivotal to our deliberations.
It may come as no surprise that the recommendations that flowed from that analysis have been largely overlooked and relegated to the “too hard” basket.
Strictly speaking, the National Government has only limited constitutional power over schools. The authority it does exercise – with increasing intrusiveness into state decision making – derives from its powers to make grants to the states and territories. It is now a major player in funding, assessment and curriculum development.
It wasn’t until the 60s that the Commonwealth started to provide funds for schools, largely in response to concerns about resource adequacy in Catholic schools for Indigenous education. These pressures resulted in bipartisan support for state aid for non-government schools provided from the Commonwealth purse. Over time, this policy has widened existing divisions between school sectors, complicated administration and led to serious long-term distortions and inequalities in Australia’s schooling system – both educational and social – that have proved remarkably difficult to ameliorate.
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