School Funding is indeed wasted Kevin, but not in ways that you are suggesting

sub title: More Dog Whistling from Kevin Donnelly:

Given that Christopher Pyne, anointed Kevin Donnelly as the one who could have his way with the Australian National Curriculum you think he might just sit back a little. But no – here he is again, but this time back to his old ways of vindictively threatening funding for Australia’s most needy students. But perhaps, after the Barry Spurr fiasco, Christopher Pyne has called on him to create a distraction.

So let’s look at his arguments and let’s apply Kevin’s own standards of Judaea-Christian tradition of solid, impartial, non-emotive, non-misleading, rational discourse.

His first claim runs as follows:

A prevailing myth of Australia’s left-leaning education establishment is that increased funding of government schools leads to improved educational outcomes.

But if you take out the misleading elements of this sentence, it might read more like this:

The prevailing position of Australia’s education establishment is that increased funding for high need schools will lead to improved educational outcomes.

Saying it this way reads a little differently doesn’t it? Here is the rationale for my edits:

  1. The Gonski report does not argue for more funding for Government schools – their status as Government schools is not the reason for additional funding. The Gonski report argues that Australia needs a resource standard that would be the amount of funds it takes to education an average child in Australia. On top of that we need to provide additional funds to be directed on the basis of needs – you might have noticed, Kevin, that it is called ‘needs based funding’ not Government school funding.
  1. Left leaning is nothing but a dog whistle. I am left leaning and Jane Caro might confess to this heinous crime too, but not David Gonski, nor Liberal Minister Adrian Piccoli. Rather, there is a consensus that needs based funding is the right way go.
  1. Thirdly, The use of the term ‘a … myth’ is quite emotive and misleading. It is not a myth just because Kevin says it is. In fact, the overwhelming weight of impartial, informed experts and researchers supports this view. Kevin knows better than to use red rag language like this. A more appropriate word would be ‘position’.

His next argument is that the OECD’s PISA tests show that increasing expenditure is not the solution. He is referring here to tables comparing global schooling expenditure to comparative PISA results. This argument actually has zero relevance to the Gonski claims because it has nothing whatsoever to do with needs based funding. It does not give any consideration to where the funding is directed.

Statistics on the global resourcing of schools tells us absolutely nothing about where the money goes. For example, the vast bulk of increases in schooling expenditure in Australia, since the mid 90s, has been spent on non-needy schools. Australia lags behind – way behind, other OECD countries on expenditure on public schools, where most of the needy students go, but is way out at the front of the pack on expenditure to private schools. In fact, no other country has directed such a huge amount of new funding on this sort of reverse targeting – on students who need it least.

This is a good example of Kevin’s sleight of hand approach to mounting an argument. He has cherry picked: this one, of many observations from the OECD reports, The OECD reports offer many other conclusions that were not referenced by Kevin. Those of most relevance to this debate include:

  • How resources are allocated is just as important as the amount of resources available to be allocated. P41
  • Much of the impact of socio-economic status on performance is mediated by the resources invested in schools. P43
  • How resources are allocated to disadvantaged and advantaged schools is also related to systems’ levels of performance. In higher performing systems, principals in socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools reported similar levels of quality of physical infrastructure and schools’ educational resources, both across OECD countries and across all countries and economies participated in PISA 2012 (Table IV.1.3). As shown in Figure IV.1.11, even after accounting for per capita GDP, 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by the level of similarities in principals’ report on schools’ educational resources between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. P43

Of particular note is Figure IV.1.11 which illustrates that, on this indicator of equity, Australia is at the bottom of the pack – equal to the United States, with only Turkey and Mexico less equitable than us

  • Across OECD countries and all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall performance.

Kevin does not refer to any of these conclusions, preferring to use the one OECD conclusion that is ostensibly making his case. Here is the gist of his argument:

The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education

But what he should have said, drawing on all the relevant information might look more like this

 The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education, but they also don’t invest heavily in private school systems and they do invest more resources in low Socio-economic schools and ensure that the school facilities and standards of physical resourcing across schools are similar.

Kevin supports his poorly argued claim by drawing on a report prepared by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh MP that appears to support him.

In Long Run Trends in School Productivity: Evidence from Australia, Leigh and Chris Ryan, analysing test results from 1964 to 2003, observed minimal improvement and concluded: “Real per child school expenditure increased substantially over this period, implying a fall in school productivity.”

But, of course, there are no comparable tests between 1964 and 2003, and Leigh and Ryan did not investigate where the expenditure increases occurred. If they had, they would have discovered that the bulk of the increases, above and beyond CPI, can be attributed to the combined result of the Whitlam decision to fund private schools in the 1970s and the huge boosts these schools enjoyed over the Howard years.

Kevin’s third argument is that the catholic system achieves superior results to the Government system.

To be honest, I don’t quite understand why this is an argument for not increasing funding to public schools. Surely if this was true it would support Gonski’s recommendations.

But is it true? Kevin does not substantiate or reference this claim.

Kevin also neglects to add that according to the OECD report 2013 cited above, (Figure ii-i-19) the results for Australia on the different performance on PISA (Mathematics) of school systems, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools favours public education by a small margin.

And finally, Kevin’s last argument is about class size.

Perhaps this is relevant because Kevin assumes that the additional funds that would flow to high needs schools would all go towards reducing class sizes. This is an assumption as there are many other demands on cash strapped high needs schools – remedial support, counseling, diagnostic assessments, ICT, investing in teacher professional development, teacher remuneration …

Kevin ignores research that demonstrates that there is a positive relationship between smaller class sizes and student outcomes for low SES students and this is where the bulk of the additional funds will be directed.

He has also neglected to note that, since Government funding for private schools commenced in the 1970s, private schools (non-Catholic) have led the way in reduced class size even though this is where we get almost no gain from our investment. On the other hand Catholic School class sizes have absolutely plummeted and are now on par with Government schools.

Perhaps these two systems could be persuaded by Kevin to give back to the Government the additional funds they received that have been directed to reduced class sizes. After-all Kevin is adamant that money does not matter and should not be wasted and this is the key area where increased funds have not translated into improved outcomes.


This essay has a number of fundamental weaknesses: un-necessary emotive language designed to unduly influence readers, failure to substantiate core claims, cherry picking of evidence to suit a pre ordained conclusion and lack of engagement with the core conclusions of the OECD research. F-