Every week since last September, excluding holidays, top government officials have been meeting secretly at various locations around Canberra with two of the nation's most powerful lobby groups to thrash out a deal. If it comes off, it will be Prime Minister Julia Gillard's biggest legacy, touching the lives of all Australians for generations to come.
The faceless negotiators are officials from the Department of Education and Prime Minister and Cabinet, who make up Gillard's schools funding taskforce. Delegates of the independent, Catholic as well as the state school sectors, in separate meetings, sit across the table. Confidentiality clauses forbid each of the three sectors from conferring with others.
The deal, just revealed as a $14.5 billion boost to schools funding, represents no less than the biggest overhaul of Australian schooling in 40 years. It promises to frame the education experience of every Australian school child from 2014 onwards, no matter what type of school they attend.
"It's the biggest since Whitlam," says Professor Richard Teese of the University of Melbourne graduate school of education, referring to the 1973-74 introduction of needs-based federal funding for schools under Gough Whitlam's Labor government.
But whether Gillard's schools plan fulfils its promise now hinges on whether she can get the states to sign up to it, and at what price. Even if she can, it's still a few political deals short of the "education revolution" of Labor rhetoric, according to Teese. He says bribing private schools and allowing Catholic systems to redistribute money maintains a funding architecture that should be killed off. On the other hand, Gillard has brought a focus on educational outcomes that earlier reforms have lacked.
David Gonski is a businessman and philanthropist. He was commissioned by Gillard in her previous job as education minister to lead the review that came up with the plan on which the reforms are based.
The central, simple idea of his report is that no matter what school system a child is in, a minimum sum of money should be spent on him or her that equates to the true cost of providing them with high quality education.
The allocation to bring each school to this standard should be determined by need, taking into account the school's existing resources and the particular requirements of its mix of students. The Commonwealth gets a key role in funding for all schools.
"It means the money goes to the child as well as to the school," says Kathryn Greiner, a member of the Gonski review panel. "It acknowledges parents have a right to a choice [of schools], but their choice should not be predicated on some schools being able to provide better services than others."
The baseline standard has now been set at $9271 for each primary student and $12,193 for each secondary school student. Each school would have at their disposal from all funding sources at least that amount per student, plus extra loadings for disadvantage such as for students with disabilities or from non-English speaking backgrounds or remote locations.
The $14.5 billion represents an average boost of $4000 per student over six years, or $1.5 million per school. It means principals will be able to put on extra staff and new programs for struggling students. The Commonwealth will contribute nearly $2 for every $1 the state premiers chip in, or $9.4 billion of the $14.5 billion over six years.
"This will dramatically change the landscape over time," says Jim McMorrow, a former deputy director-general of education in NSW and adviser to Commonwealth governments on education. He says the package would "probably double the level of Commonwealth funding to government schools".
It would break the vexing "structural imbalance" by which Canberra with its much greater access to taxation resources supplies the bulk of public funding to the Catholic and independent school sectors, leaving public schools to rely on whatever funds the states can corral.
Tying support to disadvantage no matter whether it occurs in the public or private system is a "big breakthrough", says Gerald Burke, adjunct professor in the Monash University faculty of education. But promising that "no school will lose" was "really silly" because it meant "you could end up spending in places where it could be better spent".
The government has pledged non-government schools would receive at least 20 per cent of the baseline standard - whether they need it or not - or up to 90 per cent depending on a school community's capacity to contribute through fees. The upshot of the backroom dealing is that independent schools will get $1 billion, and Catholic schools will get $1.4 billion, though most of the extra funds - more than 80 per cent - will go to public schools.
Another problem Gonski set out to fix was a decline in the performance of students against those of other countries on international benchmark tests, and a widening gap between the highest and lowest performing students in Australia. Experts argue over whether performance on these tests is an adequate gauge of school quality.
Even so they have welcomed measures for improving school performance such as extra teacher training, more autonomy for principals over hiring and budgets, and bullying prevention programs.
But it is "immensely disappointing" and a "discordant note in the whole debate", says Sandra Harding, incoming president of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor of James Cook University, that the government set up universities to be in competition to schools by announcing it would take $2.3 billion from university budgets and student support to pay for the reforms.
"It defeats the whole purpose of trying to have a coherent education policy for Australia" says Bill Scales, a former Productivity Commissioner, member of the Gonski panel and chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology. But he is pleased that "what the government has put on the table with the states is very close to what the panel recommended", as is Kathryn Greiner.
Clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and states in relation to education is a big breakthrough, says Scales. "It was reinforcing and acknowledging that the Commonwealth will have an important role funding all systems depending on what circumstances might apply [at any given time]," including the capacity to step in when a state's economic circumstances threatened school resource levels.
It's a long way from 2004 and then Labor leader Mark Latham's proposal to take $520 million from 67 private schools and freeze the federal funding of a further 111, redirecting it to poorer Catholic and independent schools. Public schools stood to gain $1.9 billion. Opponents seized on the "hit list" to stoke fear in school communities.
Education Minister Peter Garrett argues the nature of the debate has changed and these latest reforms are not about advantaging some children at the expense of others.
"I think the most important thing about the way in which we've approached this school education reform is to recognise we have a diverse school system. It is one where parents are making choices about where to send their kids to school and it's one which over time has changed in character," he says.
The Howard government introduced a system to tie funding for non-government schools to the socio-economic status of the school community. But to prevent creating losers, it agreed to maintain existing funding for schools that the model suggested should have received less.
What is in the balance now is whether the Gillard government can clinch a deal with the states, territories and non-government sector and pass legislation before the September 14 election that polls show Labor is on track to lose.
Although the Council of Australian Governments meeting on Friday was supposed to be a crucial moment to settle the deals, Gillard has now said deals could by done by June 30 - even though Parliament's final pre-election sitting is scheduled for June 27.
It's a high-risk timeline. But the government insists it will be able to pass legislation that at least lays the groundwork and allows states to sign up to the reforms after the fact. This would eliminate the need to recall Parliament to change the law should a state leader leave it to the last minute to come on board.
While the Coalition has proposed the extension of the current funding system, with annual increases tied to state school budget movements, it has vowed to keep the new Gonski-style arrangements if all states and territories have locked in deals by the time of a change of government.
But it is unclear what sort of model a Coalition government would adopt if only some states came on board.
Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne says: "How would I know? The government doesn't know where they're going to end up."
Pyne denies the existing funding model is broken but says the Coalition supports elements of the Gonski proposals such as loadings for disadvantaged students "and we would seek to implement those [loadings]".
The Greens' spokeswoman on school policy, Penny Wright, strongly supports the Gonski reforms - even though she thinks the government is phasing in the extra cash too slowly - but says the whole process has been "unnecessarily dragged out" in an election tactic.
"The Australian Greens are concerned that Labor has hoped that education would be a good story for them right before the election and making it an election issue, but the risk is they will not end up achieving the Gonski reforms they wanted and children will pay the price," Wright says.
"It's been a huge gamble with the future of Australian kids."