By David Hetherington, Executive Director, Public Education Foundation

You just can’t script it.  Trump’s 100 days an unparalleled success.  Teresa May declares war on Brussels.  And for a fresh set of eyes on Australian education after the Gonski years, Malcolm Turnbull appoints… David Gonski.

What to make of this last political eye-catcher?  The first thing to say is that it’s clever politics. In a moment, it takes the sting out of the most powerful word in the Opposition’s arsenal.  After all, how can the Government not be for Gonski when standing next to them endorsing their approach is… Gonski.  Secondly, it’s an improvement on the Government’s status quo position for school funding.  They are now committed to a genuine schools funding increase rather than the scorched earth policy of Tony Abbott’s 2014 Budget.  And thirdly, it contains some real advances on Labor’s policy.  It is willing to address overfunded schools, which are typically non-government ones, and does away with the silly mantra that no school will be worse off.

Of course Labor aren’t happy.  More tellingly, though, state governments or education advocates aren’t happy either.  And this is the rub… while the policy does offer a funding increase, it falls far short of the original Gonski agreements between the states and the Commonwealth.  Critically, it does not provide the final two years of funding over the agreed six year package.  Labor is correct to argue that over ten years, compared to their policy, schools will still be $22 billion poorer.  A ten year costing promise in politics is always fanciful, but there’s little doubt in the short term, Turnbull’s announcement this week delivers significantly less funding than what had been agreed under Labor.

So if it doesn’t match Labor’s position, why do it at all?  Why not save their powder for a different issue, a Coalition strength like immigration or the economy?  That’s the fascinating question.

In explicitly differentiating themselves from Labor by saying they’ll help disadvantaged public schools at the expense of overfunded private ones, it’s possible the Government is tapping into a changing sentiment in the electorate.

For over 30 years, we’ve seen a steady growth in non-government share of enrolments, from 21% in 1977 to 35% today.  But recently, a fundamental shift in parental choice had begun to unfold.  The 30 year slide in public school enrolments has stopped, and the public share is now growing at the expense of non-government’s.  The public system’s share of enrolments has increased from 65.05% to 65.3% since 2013.    The trend stretches across the nation, from NSW to WA.  In the ACT, public schools’ share is growing at three times the national average.

Why the sudden reversal of a steady long-term trend?  Three things have contributed to the turnaround.

First, runaway housing costs are placing pressure on household budgets and forcing parents to find savings elsewhere.  Recent OECD figures show that housing costs are now consuming almost a quarter of Australian household expenditure, compared with less than one fifth in 2000 – an enormous jump.  Whether they’re paying $30,000 a year for a top private school, or a few thousand for a place in the Catholic system, increased housing costs will prompt some families to look for better value in high quality, free public education.

Secondly, the household budget pressure is compounded by record low wage growth and declining job security.  At the end of 2016, household disposable income was lower than in 2011, employment growth is lagging population growth, and part-time work is at record highs.  The anxiety caused by stagnating wages and uncertain work futures is a further barrier changing the cost-benefit equation around school choice.

The third, and possibly most important point, is that with all the MySchool testing, it’s now become common knowledge that there’s basically no performance difference between the sectors once you take parents’ socio-economic status (including their education) into account. Put simply, the school sector is not what changes kids’ outcomes, it’s what’s going on at home.  Once you grasp this, the school choice equation looks a lot different.  It becomes a lot more attractive to find a good, free public school and make sure the child has a strong home environment.

Taken together, these three factors – housing costs, flat wages, better understanding of performance – are driving a profound shift in our thinking about school choice.  This is what’s showing up in enrolments.

With its Gonski 2.0 announcement, the Government appears to have realised it risks voter backlash if it continues to ignore the evolving preferences of parents.  Along with house prices, school choice remains a conversation staple amongst Australian families.  Woe betide the politician who misses its subtly changing tone.


David Hetherington is Executive Director of the Public Education Foundation.