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How Catholic schools fail the poor

25 August 2009 1,498 views No Comment

In a secular country like Australia it is ironic that Catholic schools are mainly funded by the state. Even in America, where religion pervades politics, state aid to religious schools is constitutionally forbidden. Yet the fact remains that most Catholic school provision in English-speaking countries is fully publicly funded.

Australian Catholic school funding is a complex work in progress. Although socially liberal and committed to serve a public function, Australian Catholic schools are virtually uniquely private sector schools, drawing from the Commonwealth and states funds without which they would be unsustainable.

The remainder of their resources comes from low-fee imposts, with the exception of a minority of schools owned by Catholic religious orders which 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, has 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 denominational affiliation. At a time before universally available public education became the norm, such schools also reflected the differentiated class interests of society: in effect schools for the rich and others or none for the poor.

Mary McKillop’s missionary zeal in founding schools for the poor reflects a time, long passed, in which only the wealthier non-Catholic Churches managed to maintain their schools without state aid. The main exception to this rule was the Catholic Church, which imported thousands of religious women and men to operate a school system relatively accessible to all.

Since the Second World War, a decline in religious vocations, coupled with a dramatic increase in Australia’s population, brought pressure on Australian political parties to overturn the ban on state aid to private schools.

Leading the charge was the Catholic Church, which, through the Democratic Labor Party, drove a split in the ALP to influence its supporters to cast their second preferences for the Coalition parties. These had a more conciliatory attitude to the funding of private schools.

The Whitlam Government (1972,1975) broke the stranglehold of the Coalition on this question by agreeing to fund all non-government schools on the basis of need, resolving a sectarian and ideological divide in Australian society and politics lasting over a century.

Since the mid-1980s funding deregulation has imposed a different set of problems on Catholic schools. Their demographic shows that they have become cheap private schools and that lower socio-economic Catholic enrolments in them have plummeted.

Recent research by Michael Furtado shows that under a neoliberal funding policy Catholic schools are unable to match the services provided by government schools to meet poor children’s needs.

Catholics do not operate comprehensive schools through which their students are exposed to the entire curriculum that is available in a government school. Their parent organisations are closely controlled by school providers, whose preoccupation is to ensure existing funding policy, even at the cost of locking low-income students out, other than as a matter of exceptional and charitable dispensation.

Such issues have been resolved elsewhere through various modes of integrating Catholic schools within the public sector, as in New Zealand since 1974 and in the UK from 1944. Those who control Catholic education in Australia have vigorously resisted this proposal as a threat to the ethos of Catholic schools.

Yet evidence from other countries does not support such a view: there has been no noticeable dilution of religious ethos where Catholic schools are fully funded by the state and there is no correlation between Catholic school attendance and Catholic faith practice in Australia.

As a result of the Catholic precedent, state aid to private schools has resulted in a class-differentiated school system, with poor children disproportionately enrolled in state schools. In effect, Catholic schools, intended first and foremost for the poor, have become the instrument through which millions of tax dollars are siphoned off public schools and given to the private sector.

The ALP is now committed to funding all schools, public and private, on the basis of the socio-economic status of their enrolled students as broken down by home address. This is an indelible indicator of private wealth or poverty. The funding dollar will flow to schools that enrol learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A golden opportunity faces the Rudd Government and the Church, concerned about the loss of poor students in Catholic schools, to offer an authentic choice to parents to access a broad range of equally accessible schools that are equally paid for by the state.

If the Catholic Church fails to engage Labor’s ‘education revolution’ on this proposal, its commitment to the Gospel of social justice will be in ruins.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Catholic University. He has authored 31 books. His latest, Under the Influence: A history of alcohol in Australia will be published soon.

Eureka Street, August 24, 2009