Monday, December 5, 2016

Education efficiency should start with Grattan compromise

If Treasury wants to start acting more like economists than accountants, a good place to start would be to urge its political masters to seize on the opportunity presented by the school funding "compact" proposed by the Grattan Institute.

Treasury advice would be much improved if it switched its approach to the budget from helping the politicians cook up some quick cuts to government spending to a more medium-term focus on achieving better value for the taxpayers' dollar through greater efficiency and effectiveness.

A more medium-term approach allows greater scope for micro-economic considerations to be incorporated into decision making.

The policy quagmire of school education is crying out for Treasury's guiding hand. It's hard to believe that school funding is still dogged by century-old sectarian rivalry between the public, Catholic systemic and independent school systems.

Thanks to this unending rivalry, the nation spends almost all its time arguing over how public funding is shared between the three systems, leaving little time to debate how well the money's being spent and how it could be better spent.

Meanwhile, domestic performance measures (NAPLAN) show, at best, no improvement in our performance over time, and international measures (PISA) show other countries improving while we mark time.

Our results show a wide gap between our best and worst performing students, which hasn't changed much, neither because our best have got better nor because our worst have got less worse.

Is this something Treasury is happy to see roll on? One unlikely to have much adverse effect on either the budget balance or national productivity?

Well, if we keep putting most of our energy into public versus Catholic versus independent, rest assured it will.

The Gonski funding review came up with a breakthrough proposal to rise above sectarian squabbling by moving to the division of combined federal and state funding on the basis of student need, regardless of which silo a disadvantaged student was in.

The Gillard government belatedly introduced a bastardised and far more expensive version of "Gonski", which the Abbott government pretended to support but disavowed immediately on winning office.

So the sectarian standoff remains. The Coalition isn't prepared to implement Labor's version of Gonski because it's too expensive, but it's too expensive because of Labor's promise to help the poor schools (those with many disadvantaged students) at no cost to the rich schools (those with few disadvantaged students).

Trouble is, until we direct more funds to the disadvantaged students, we don't stand much hope of improving our schooling outcomes.

Of course, a more efficient allocation of funds is just the first step towards improving the outcomes of disadvantaged students –  which is why it's so important to move the debate on from how the money's divided to how effectively it's being spent.

Clearly, moving to needs-based funding is as much about efficiency as about equity (fairness).

It makes zero economic sense to continue overfunding some students while those you underfund become an underclass of poorly educated workers who spend a lifetime in and out of employment, making a weak contribution to national productivity (not to mention being a recurring drag on the budget).

The 2014 budget did nothing to correct the maldistribution of federal funding to public and private schools, it just cut the basis of annual indexation from a high rate set by the Gillard legislation to just the consumer price index (much less than the rise in teachers' wages). It was about cost shifting, not reform.

This was always unsustainable politically. In the end, Malcolm Turnbull relented and promised to keep the original funding arrangement going for another three years to 2020.

Turns out grants are set to grow by 3.6 per cent a year, whereas teachers' salaries are more likely to grow by 2.5 per cent.

The genius of the "circuit-breaking new compact" proposed by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann of the Grattan Institute is that it seizes this rare chance to propose a deal that would get all schools up to 95 per cent of needs-based funding (the "schooling resources standard") by 2023, much earlier even than Gillard's plan.

This would involve schools below the 95 per cent benchmark having their funds raised by 3.6 per cent a year, while those between 95 and 100 per cent of the standard would rise by 2.5 per cent and those already above the standard would mark time.

This last element is the compact's point of political vulnerability, of course, and already Labor has found it.

Put the Labor opposition's personal ambitions ahead of the interests of disadvantaged students? Why not, says Labor's spokeswoman, the not so lovely Tanya Plibersek.

Let's hope Treasury has higher principles than Labor.