The federal government has been accused of deception.
Its pre-election promises on schools funding are under the microscope in what could be Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first big credibility test.
Against the political odds, the previous Labor government locked in most of the states and territories to a needs-based funding model guaranteeing an escalating flow of money over six years.
The model, funded to the tune of $15 billion-plus and based on a report by businessman David Gonski, was to deliver schools a base-per-student amount, with loadings for various disadvantage.
During the federal campaign, Mr Abbott effectively neutralised schools funding as an issue for the coalition by appearing to side with Labor.
“As far as school funding is concerned, Kevin Rudd and I are on a unity ticket,” he said. “We will make sure that no school is worse off.”
Now, 12 weeks from the election, Education Minister Christopher Pyne says he’ll only guarantee the deals signed for 2014, and establish a new system from 2015.
NSW’s Liberal-National government – which operates the nation’s largest school system – was the first to sign up to the so-called Gonski model in April.
Premier Barry O’Farrell declared it would guarantee his state “additional resources and fairer distribution to deliver higher standards and better outcomes in schools”. It would also end past debates about public versus private funding systems, he said.
The response to the government’s decision has been scathing. Mr O’Farrell urged the education minister to “pick up the phone and explain what the hell is going on”.
View from the west
Western Australia’s education minister Peter Collier said the federal government should rip up any education funding agreements they have with other states – which he has accused of going “weak at the knees” in accepting the deals.
But WA, which refused an eventual offer of $900 million, said Tuesday that he was proud WA had not signed and accused other states of caving into the face of a “bucket of money”.
“It is necessary to reassess the situation, and look at a fair and equitable distribution of wealth,” Mr Collier said.”The original offer to WA … was insulting and piecemeal compared to other states.”
While Mr Pyne argues the early money will be within Labor’s “funding envelope”, the minister also claims the budget cupboard is bare and it would be irresponsible to put monies on the taxpayer credit card.
Mr Pyne also has a problem with the “strings” attached to the funding and will examine issues such as teacher quality, curriculum and greater decision-making by principals.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the coalition’s pre-election promise was no more than an attempt to shut down a damaging debate.
Teachers have labelled it a deliberate deception and called on the education ministers, who meet with Mr Pyne on Friday, to hold the federal coalition to account.
Meanwhile, Mr Pyne he’s too busy to sit down with an expert panel and have its needs-based school funding model explained to him.
Nor does he want to get into a slanging match with his state counterparts over the Gonski school funding reforms.
“That would be unseemly,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.
Mr Pyne says the government will “stick with what it’s got” for the 2014 school year but after that he wants a “flatter, simpler, fairer structure”. There is no reason for any state or territory to assume they are going to get less money over the next four years, he says.
Asked whether he was prepared to sit down with the Gonski panel and have them explain their funding model, Mr Pyne said he was too busy.
“No, I’ve studied the Gonski model closely and I have to get on with the job of being education minister.”
Mr Pyne said a needs-based funding model was a very good principle, but precious funds were going on regulation and prescription rather than at the school yard level.
— Staff writer with AAP