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Monday 22 May 2017

Prudent education funding gone-ski

I am sure I am not the only observer to be somewhat flummoxed by the new-direction 'Turn-bill' budget. My first reaction was rather stronger, but 'flummoxed' will do for now. I guess it will take some time to see where it leads, but for me it represents total capitulation on many long standing liberal values. While I appreciate the senate problem that has been used as justification for the illiberal measures, it does not explain the narratives used to justify these. Even if you wish to raise a levy on some banks, why the bank bashing? Liberals were once very proud of our world class banking system, so what has suddenly changed? Similarly the narrative surrounding the revised education policy is a total reversal of  what the LNP has been saying for some time.

Let's just look at education spending, now endearingly termed Gonski 2.0. While there is a potential political advantage in removing, or partially removing, a point of difference between ALP and LNP, it trashes the valid long standing LNP argument that increased education spending does not improve educational outcomes.

Across the world educational spending does not correlate with educational outcomes. (see Figure 1 below and the earlier post Education Spending scores an "F" giving some background.)

Figure 1: Educational Outcome vs Spending

At the same time despite significant increases in Education spending over the past decade Australia's education outcomes have deteriorated (see Inconvenient truths on Education spending ).

Given these inconvenient facts, how can any government justify increasing spending? Indeed, even if Australia had zero debt, and had money to burn, it would be a reckless politician who simply threw more money at a problem that has undoubtedly become worse despite more money.

What are the consequences?

By advocating the new Gonski 2.0 policy Turnbull and Scomo have; -
  • conceded that ALP has been right all along to argue for Gonski and more spending
  • trashed their own argument that more spending is not the way to improve outcomes
  • contributed to increased spending when the country is running continuous deficits
  • damaged LNP arguments for fiscal responsibility
  • damaged their own credentials as responsible economic managers
At the same time the proposed 'adjustments' have already been labelled unfair and have ignited a war with the Catholic education sector.

This is a lose, lose, lose strategy.

What could they have done? 

Here are a few ideas for a start; - 
  • Stick with the argument, and make the case that increased spending is NOT necessary for improved outcomes
  • Focus on teacher education standards, that have been falling as rapidly as outcomes. Cause and effect?
  • Focus on curricula that seem to dumb down the technical subjects to make them more inclusive. Perhaps a focus on the three R's would raise standards
  • Look at encouraging some competitiveness between schools by allowing Principals to hire /fire and allocated salaries
  • Ensure that payments to the states are contingent on each state's willingness to undertake the above reforms
The core principle underlying "Gonski" is that each child deserves the same level of contribution by State and Federal governments. This is hard to argue. Yet contrary to Labour, and now the Libs', interpretations this does not require additional spending, it just requires that current spending be adjusted to achieve that outcome. Of course it cannot be done at once, as any school suddenly losing spending would cry blue murder. It could however be a achieved by a series of incremental adjustments over some years. Over time the annual increases received by some schools would be lower than those of others. It would allow schools to gradually adjust to the 'fairer' distribution of public funding. No sudden changes, just incremental adjustments, and no cuts in absolute terms.

But even this incremental re-distribution is somewhat nuanced for today's "in" or "out" mentality, so for political reasons I would have avoided it, for now at least.

I guess this is one opportunity foregone for this year.  Given Turnbull and his team's unexpected abandonment of heretofore core LNP values, it seems sensible policy has been deferred for some time.

So we can all go and cry into our beers.

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