Never has a political lobbying campaign exposed its Achilles’ heel so willingly and, seemingly, unwittingly.
The decision by Catholic schools to go all out in their opposition to the Turnbull government’s Gonski 2.0 school funding plan is not only a remarkable political development which threatens the decades long accommodation between the Catholic church and the once very Protestant, conservative political establishment.
It is also a campaign which reveals to extent to which the Catholic school system has been channelling Commonwealth funding to their schools in rich areas at the expense of poor ones.
Why the Catholics would want this funding imbalance to be revealed so starkly is a mystery?
Yet the Catholic schools campaign against the government focuses on Catholic schools in wealthier areas which currently enjoy low fees because the Catholic system (which enjoys the right to decide how Commonwealth money is distributed among its schools) chooses to give these schools high subsidies.
They complain that if these schools were to receive what the Gonski plan would give them (that is, the amount stated on the government’s new school funding estimator website) then their annual fees would rise by thousands of dollars.
Fixed pot of money
But have they forgotten that their long-standing practice of handing more of the fixed pot of government money to schools in richer areas means that Catholic schools in poorer areas get less?
And how will this play when they ask the families of the three quarters of a million children in Catholic schools in Australia to pressure the Turnbull government to change the Gonski funding plan?
“They’re asking all Catholic families to come out fighting in support of the most advantaged,” says the Grattan Institute’s school education program director Peter Goss.
He points out that the current way in which the Catholic system distributes government funding helps families in advantaged areas save to send their children to exclusive, high fee, private Catholic schools.
“Why should battlers in Broadmeadows argue for cushy fees in Camberwell, when it simply helps those families save up to send their kids to exclusive Catholic secondary schools such as Xavier and Genezzano?” Goss asks.
The fascinating question to answer is why the Catholic education authorities think that wider knowledge of their cosseting of schools in rich areas at the expense of poor is going to win them political support.
But beyond that, their complaints about schools being forced to raise fees has no logic. The Turnbull government is going to continue to allow them to redistribute money as they choose. Privileged Catholic schools can remain privileged. The main hurt they will suffer is embarrassment.
It is true that Catholic schools will lose some money under the Gonski plan because they did get a special deal under the former Labor government and Turnbull is going to put them on the same basis as other independent schools.
It’s also true that their are technical issues with part of the Gonski distribution formula which may disadvantage them and the government has asked the Australian Bureau of Statistics to advise on this.
There could be a valid issue here for Catholic schools. But for them to argue that fees will rise by thousands of dollars is utterly unfounded and misleading.