More school morals, less accounting 101

The debate we need to have is not about how Gillard’s education crusade will be funded but how to reverse the growing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

It is perfectly predictable that the response from most media commentators to Julia Gillard’s 'education crusade’ – at least those relatively few who have not yet taken redundancies at Fairfax or News Limited – was to ask; where’s the money coming from?

These commentators echoed the sound bites from Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Education spokesman Christopher Pyne, both of whom missed the opportunity to say something thoughtful and thought provoking.

The question of where the money will come from is an important one of course but it is surely not the first question to ask when it comes to education reform, one that goes to the heart of what sort of society we are and want to be.

Gillard’s political timidity is partly responsible for the fact that instead of focusing on the nature and substance of the reforms she outlined at the Press Club this week, the focus was on where the money’s coming from.

It is almost a year since the Gonski review was handed to the government. Instead of quickly considering the Gonski proposals, formulating a response and getting on with the business of negotiating a new funding deal with the states, the government sat on its hands.

Indeed, on the fundamental issue of education funding, the governments of both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – in power now for five years – left the funding formula devised by the Howard government in 2001 unchanged.

This was despite the fact that there was evidence to show that the educational outcomes of disadvantaged schools – disadvantaged children in government schools and to a lesser extent, non-government schools – were poor and getting poorer.

In my previous life, I once had the opportunity to sit with John Howard at the Lodge and ask him what he considered to be his greatest achievement.

Without hesitation, Howard said that his most lasting achievement would be that he had made it impossible for any government to cut funding to non-government schools. That was because his government had made it possible for 'Aussie battlers’ to send their kids to good non-government schools.

In recent days, Tony Abbott, who once considered himself to be Howard’s political love child, has labelled his mentor a man of the past. But no doubt Abbott remains a Howard man on education. He has made it clear that even under the old Howard funding formula, non-government schools are disadvantaged and that the formula will stay in place if the coalition wins government at the next election.

The Gonski proposals in a sense boil down to a plan designed to halt and eventually reverse the growing gap between disadvantaged children – including indigenous kids and children with disabilities – and the children of advantage. The billions in extra funding would be used to narrow and close that gap.

In her speech, Gillard, for all her fine rhetoric, was not clear enough about this. She talked too much about Australia getting back to the top of the international table in terms of education outcomes, which is not what Gonski is fundamentally about.

And crusade is a strange word to use for the sort of reforms Gillard is – or at least should be – on about, with its religious connotations and its suggestion of a sort of zealousness that is misleading at best.

In fact the Gonski reforms go to the heart of social democracy which is not simply about a decent safety net for the poor and the sick and the old and those unable to rise to Gina Rinehart’s demand that they, like her, work hard, make their own luck and become billionaires.

At the heart of social democracy is a belief that governments can implement reforms that give people the chance to lead decent and productive lives. Disadvantage does not inevitably need to be passed on from one generation to the next. Governments can ameliorate entrenched disadvantage.

That’s the case that Gillard did not put clearly enough, for fear I presume, of being accused of class warfare and of having a secret rich schools hit list and that fear led to Gillard giving the assurance that no school, no matter how well resourced, would miss out on a funding increase.

And that fear led her to the absurd idea that the top non-government schools could become aspirational role models for disadvantaged schools.

There is a debate to be had about whether governments can actually do anything about inequality of opportunity in education specifically. That’s because education funding and reform is at the heart of competing visions between social democrats and modern conservatism about the size and role of government. We should have that debate.

In The Australian, Judith Sloan had this to say about the Gonski reforms and Gillard’s commitment to a new funding formula for Australia’s schools:

"But here’s a note to Peter Garrett, the Schools Minister. Everyone cannot be above average… And smart, education-oriented parents have smart, education-oriented children. There is nothing that governments can do to change this; nor should they try.

"At the other end of the spectrum, there is only so much schools can do for students whose parents do not care about, and are not engaged in, the education of their children."

This is a view that few coalition politicians would put quite as forthrightly but it is a view that under-pins much of the coalition’s rejection of the Gonski reforms.

The debate we need to have is not about how the so called Gillard crusade will be funded, not yet anyway, but rather about whether government should be involved in trying to ameliorate disadvantage and as far as possible – if it is possible – create an educational environment that gives disadvantaged children the best chance to escape their disadvantage.

There has been much said about the Labor Party’s inability to adapt its social democratic roots to the realities of the 21st century. That’s true of social democrats everywhere.

The Gonski reforms give the Gillard government the chance to argue that Labor’s social democratic values still matter to the party. The funding issues will then be clear.

The money will have to come from those programs that advantage the advantaged, including the billions in tax breaks that assist people who don’t need the taxpayer assistance they are getting in order to fund a comfortable retirement.

And come the next election, we might have a campaign of real substance for the first time in a long time.