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A golden opportunity for Catholic schools

13 August 2009 1,413 views No Comment

In a relatively secular country like Australia it is ironic that one of the main educational providers is the Catholic Church. And funding by the state allows this religious school system to function, which could be seen as compromising the separation between church and state.

Even rabidly religious America eschews this practice, since state aid to religious schools is constitutionally forbidden. The fact is that Catholic school provision in many English-speaking countries is largely a matter of public educational provision, a product of the Reformation settlement, which favoured an established Church that placed its stamp over public education. As a result, the significant Catholic minority staked claims to a share of the public purse proportionate to the size of its membership to help maintain its schools and, to a certain degree, to propagate the faith.

This public funding of Catholic schools isn’t an issue in countries with overwhelming Catholic populations where the religious education of children is part of the culture. Some exceptions to this apply in countries in which revolutionary, nationalist, secular and anticlerical influences have challenged the position of the Church as the sole arbiter of public morality. Yet even then Catholic schools are public schools and access to them is mainly free. Conversely, the only countries in which Catholic schools are private and fee-charging are those, such as in Scandinavia, in which Catholics constitute a negligible minority, except in Australia where Catholics make up 27 per cent of the population.

Australian Catholic school funding is a complex work in progress. Although socially liberal and generally regarded as serving a public function similar to state schools, Australian Catholic schools are virtually uniquely private sector schools, drawing from the Commonwealth and the states and territories funds without which they would be unsustainable. The remainder of their resources come from low-fee imposts, with the exception of a minority of schools owned by Catholic religious orders. These schools have a demographic profile similar to non-Catholic schools and charge their clients substantially more.

This exceptional arrangement, through which an enormous private sector system is predominantly publicly funded, had fuelled the staking of claims for funding other private schools. Australia now has the biggest private school sector in the world.

How did this happen? In the colonial era all schools were equally funded, according to the denominational affiliations of the Australian population. At a time before universally available public education became the norm, such schools reflected the differentiated class interests of society: in effect schools for the rich and others for the poor.

The Josephite nun Mary McKillop’s missionary zeal in founding schools for the poor therefore reflects a time, long passed, in which only the wealthier Anglican and Protestant Churches managed to maintain their schools without state aid, once the tap was turned off in the run-up to Australia’s federation in 1901. The main exception to this rule was the Catholic Church, which imported thousands of nuns, priests and brothers to operate a school system relatively accessible to all. Thus a major characteristic of Catholic schools is their social differentiation, reflecting a time when religious orders operated schools as charitable and philanthropic arrangements through which the better off schools supported the poor ones.

Since the second world war the shortfall in religious vocations, coupled with a dramatic increase in Australia’s population, brought pressure on various political parties to overturn the ban on state aid to private schools. Leading the charge was the Catholic Church, which, through the DLP (Democratic Labor Party) drove a split in the Labor party to influence its supporters to cast their second preferences for the Coalition parties, which had a more conciliatory attitude to the funding of non-state schools.

The ALP government of Gough Whitlam (1972-1975) broke the stranglehold of the Coalition parties and their DLP allies on this question by agreeing to fund all non-government schools on the basis of need, resolving a long-standing sectarian and ideological divide in Australian society and politics.

In recent years the rise of the markets and the application of neoliberal theory to all aspects of government policy has imposed a different set of problems on Catholic schools. In effect their demographic shows that they are fast becoming cheap private schools and that lower socio-economic Catholics and others, very much the primary target of Catholic schools, have disappeared. Recent research (by Michael Furtado and others) shows that under a neoliberal funding policy regime Catholic education lacks the resources to ensure levels of access and social inclusion equivalent to public sector schools.

Moreover Catholics do not operate comprehensive schools through which their students are exposed to the entire curriculum that is available in a government school. Parent organisations in Catholic schools are controlled by Catholic school providers, whose major purpose is to ensure that no issue should disturb the sacred alliance between parents and schools, even at the cost of locking low-income Catholics and others out of them.

Catholic school access issues have been resolved in other countries through various modes of integrating Catholic schools within the public sector, as for instance in New Zealand since 1974 through an Act of Integration, and in the UK from 1944, whereby Catholic schools have remained open to all. Those who control the existing structures of Catholic school provision in Australia have resisted this transition as a risk to the ethos of Catholic schools. Yet the evidence from other countries does not support such a view: there has been no evident dilution of a religious ethos where Catholic schools are fully funded by the state and, indeed, there is no correlation between Catholic school attendance and Catholic faith practice in Australia.

As a result of what was predominantly a Catholic school-funding dispensation in the 1970s, Australia now has the largest publicly funded private school sector on the planet, which has taken advantage of the Catholic exception to draw public funds to generate what is increasingly a class-based, public versus private system, with dire consequences for lower income families who are disproportionately enrolled in state schools. In effect, Catholic schools which were originally intended ‘first and foremost’, as Church teaching proclaims, ‘for the poor’, have become the instrument through which millions of dollars in public revenue have been siphoned off public schools and given to the private sector.

What are the prospects of correcting this anomaly? The ALP is committed in the long term to pursuing a policy of funding all schools, public and private, on the basis of the socio-economic status of their enrolled students as broken down by home address, which is an indelible indicator of private wealth or poverty. This means that state schools that restrict entry to those who can afford to buy into their catchment will lose some funding unless they become more inclusive, while private schools that restrict enrolment to those who pay high fees will also lose some funding. Conversely, the funding dollar will flow to schools that enrol learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A golden opportunity now faces Catholic and other schools concerned about the role of social justice in their enterprise, not simply by creating opportunities within the curriculum to expose their students to problems of social injustice, but by making their schools genuinely available to all who wish to access them. This will offer an authentic choice to parents to access a broad range of schools that are substantially, and appropriately, paid for by the state, instead of perpetuating an outdated public versus private school funding debate. It is time, surely, to engage with such a far-sighted vision.

Spectator Australia, August 14 2009