How can public funding of rich private schools continue to be justified?

Ian Bushnell 13 November 2020 111
Canberra Grammar School

Canberra Grammar School: golden schooldays for some. Photo: File.

The news this week that Radford College will soon have a world-class cricket centre as part of a new sports precinct thanks to a $4 million donation must leave public education advocates despairing.

Tech millionaire Greg Boorer, who has four sons enrolled at the school, says his family wanted to lift the standards of sport at the school and encourage students to build resilience.

There is no question that Mr Boorer is entitled to put his hard-earned money wherever he chooses and the motivation is exemplary.

Last year businessman, philanthropist and Canberra Grammar old boy Terry Snow donated $20 million to his former school to fund a 1400-seat underground auditorium as well as a new library and learning centre opening in 2021.

Canberra Grammar's proposed auditorium

An artist’s impression of the new auditorium and library at Canberra Grammar. Image: Canberra Grammar School.

But these sorts of donations highlight an ever-growing divide between public and many private schools and how the latter profit from the largesse of wealthy parents, networks of alumni, and investment portfolios that often exploit their good fortune at being sited in prime property locations.

At the same time, they continue to be the beneficiary of generous government funding which in many ways only tops up their already well-stocked storehouse of riches.

The Gonski education reforms were supposed to realign funding on need and restore some real funding levels to the public sector.

That so-called bipartisan unity ticket disappeared long ago and the Gonski goals have been subverted for political aims.

As if the Liberal Party would ever allow the very schools that nurture it and its constituents to lose some of the funding Gonski’s original recommendations would have meant.

State-of-the-art science laboratories, multi-sports complexes, swimming pools, football and cricket grounds, concert halls and theatres – it is an embarrassment of riches that these schools, many of them church-based, flaunt without a shred of self-consciousness.


READ ALSO: Terry Snow donates record-breaking $20 million to Canberra Grammar


This inequity flourishes as public and smaller independent schools struggle with unrealistic budgets and a dearth of resources.

The awful consequence is a self-perpetuating spiral as parents attempt to flee what they see as a public system in decline for a safer world endowed with success.

On the surface the state aid arguments that all parents are taxpayers and all schools deserved to be funded have merit.

But when many of these schools have built-in advantages, are already resource-rich and continue to reap the benefits of their extended communities, is that funding even needed for them to operate?

The counter has been that without government support, fees would increase and lockout more children from the opportunity to have a better education.

But this notion of providing choice has never stood up as fees continue to rise every year and outpace incomes.

These are halls of privilege and have intrinsic value because of it. For many parents, it is the networks and introduction to a world of connections rather than the actual education that matters.

The irony is studies have consistently shown that public school graduates perform better at university than their private school counterparts who struggle without their elaborate support systems.

But this is no argument for the status quo.

Politically, this has always been a thorny issue given the powerful vested interests involved and parental desire to give their children the best they can, but the country is selling itself short by limiting its investment in human capital.

Education has always been a big economic driver and should be a priority for any government, but particularly when it is striving to guide the nation out of recession.

After a year in which we were all supposed to be in it together, the ongoing inequities across our schools rankle.

The integrity of the Gonski process needs to be restored and people need to take another look at how Australia’s schools really operate.


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111 Responses to How can public funding of rich private schools continue to be justified?
Queanbeyanite Queanbeyanite 5:39 pm 19 Nov 20

Yes, I agree. Government schools should charge means tested fees.

The fees should be invoiced attached to the end of year school report and paid, in person, with a bank cheque, to the school on the Monday before Christmas, direct to the child’s teacher.

It would focus the minds of all participants.

James Forge James Forge 1:47 pm 14 Nov 20

Our governments like to spout “the UK does this or the US does that so we should too” but they never say this when it comes to subsidising this particular private industry

Chris Thomson Chris Thomson 6:40 am 14 Nov 20

Have run out of popcorn. Be right back

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 9:21 pm 13 Nov 20

Much as it would go against the centralist grain to do so, the longer term solution to this problem (and, perhaps, some others) for the Left might, in fact, be to embrace the idea of substantial (if not complete) devolution of funding controls from the federal government to state and territory governments.

With Labor now looking more and more like the natural party of government at the sub-national level (and the opposite at the federal level) there would surely be greater scope to achieve enduring changes to schools funding arrangements if there was less central control.

Alison Jones Alison Jones 9:16 pm 13 Nov 20

Our two have gone to ACT Public Schools throughout; now in Yrs 11 and 9. Excellent education, the best pastoral care (in the broad sense) you could hope for, fantastic programs & above all, school communities accepting of all sorts of kids in all their glorious diversity. So glad we didn't fall for the marketing spiel from private schools trying to convince us education was only any good if we paid through the nose for it.

Caite Khan Caite Khan 6:28 pm 13 Nov 20

Leonie Blenkiron something too mention to kate maybe

Andrew Dale Andrew Dale 6:16 pm 13 Nov 20

A good tax write that will help their children's legacy. I'm sure I'd do it if I was in a position to and saw a need

Natalie GP Natalie GP 5:47 pm 13 Nov 20

Curious if all the people that don’t feel funding should go to private schools, also feel that people that seek private hospital appointments and inpatient stays feel Medicare should not contribute towards that too?

Ken Mansell Ken Mansell 4:20 pm 13 Nov 20

From ACARA (see https://www.acara.edu.au/reporting/national-report-on-schooling-in-australia/national-report-on-schooling-in-australia-2013/funding-australia-s-schools/an-overview-of-government-funding-of-schools)… “Total government school education funding, on a student per capita basis, was on average $15,703 for the government sector and $8,812 for the non-government sector.”

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:38 pm 13 Nov 20

    People sometimes overlook the fact that public school funding includes the building costs of the schools as well as the wages of the teachers and admin people. People who choose to send their children to private schools pay up to $20k a year per child as well as seeing their taxes fund the public system.

    I think that teachers in public schools are compelled to be trade union members. That alone would be an incentive for the teachers to get into the private system and excel.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 2:58 pm 13 Nov 20

Correspondents ought to update their fairy stories. In no sense are church schools “saving money” for federal and state governments.

Cobbold and others have documented that, already, combined fed-state funding for church schools averages close to that for govies. Plus, the church schools keep their unique privileges of uncapped fees, hiring and firing students, and anti-discrimination waivers. Plus, the church schools keep on gaining funding, re govies.

More so than any other OECD country, is written into federal law that church schools are the preferred provider, and the Commonwealth’s iniquitous 80:20 SRS funding rule gives effect to that law. Which all three parties support wholeheartedly.

Until we admit that simple reality, church schools have won, have become the preferred provider, it’s useless even talking about it.

Melissa Maly Melissa Maly 2:00 pm 13 Nov 20

In my view government funding should be equal for each school aged child, regardless of where they go to school. But it works both ways - if you send your child to a fee paying religious school, your taxes are also (in theory) helping public schools (as well as hospitals, building roads etc). There are plenty of people earning alot more than us who send their kids to public school. Yes, that's their choice - but should my tax dollars support them? Maybe there should be means testing in government schools.

Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 12:12 pm 13 Nov 20

I will probably cop crap for my comment but here goes... every child is worth educating. Every child should have a $$$ value placed on them for education. This amount should be given to which ever school they attend. If the parents then decide to add more money towards their education it is up to them (private school fees)...

    Anne O'Hara Anne O'Hara 9:10 am 14 Nov 20

    Linda Stapleton I have always felt the same way.

bj_ACT bj_ACT 11:56 am 13 Nov 20

There’s certainly a big difference between wealthy private schools such as Radford and Grammar compared to the catholic private schools in the outer suburbs.

The Kambah school closures of the 2000s and the complete and utter disaster of the replacement super school (plus being denied a place at a Weston Creek Public school) forced our kids over to St Thomas at Kambah.

This private school was far from a wealthy school full of wealthy families. Many of the kids there were also dumped out of the public schools that Mr Barr closed and so hopelessly managed the transition of.

School funding is certainly not a simple case of just Public versus Private.

Lisa Sly Lisa Sly 11:31 am 13 Nov 20

Despite all the negative comments from others, I for one want to say thank you to Greg Boorer and others like him who give back to the community. My kids don’t go to Radford, but I think it’s amazing that he is choosing to spend his own hard earned money in this way. Just google him and you will soon see that he gives back so much to the Canberra community. Thank you Greg and family.

bryansworld bryansworld 10:44 am 13 Nov 20

Another symptom of growing inequality of opportunity in our society, which is a bad thing for society as a whole, because we are not achieving our full potential. BTW Finland doesn’t even have private schools. They seem to be doing OK as a country.

Anne Willenborg Anne Willenborg 10:42 am 13 Nov 20

Private means private. If people want to send their kids to private schools they should pay for it themselves. Taxpayers money should be used to public school’s properly.

liberalsocialist liberalsocialist 10:26 am 13 Nov 20

Oh dear, the anti-Private School trolling.
If the Government were fair, then EVERY child, in every school, will have a certain amount of funding provided for them. Sure, this would be location dependent, probably with country schools receiving more per student due to lower numbers – but the private kids and public kids in those area’s should all receive the same.
BUT THEY DO NOT, when you look at the combined (which no one does) provision of money from both Federal and State Governments. Private school kids receive less, and this is made up by the parents fee’s. Yes, it means they receive, in total, more – but again, this is the parents providing this additional funding.
So will they provide equal funding for all kids? Heck no – the cost would skyrocket.

Perhaps RiotAct can provide the accurate picture and provide ALL Government funding provided to each kid in Canberra or in NSW – both State and Federal. May make people realise that the Private system is taking a financial burden off the state schools.

    bryansworld bryansworld 12:35 pm 13 Nov 20

    Which school system is better at sorting out apostrophes?

JeeKay Dee JeeKay Dee 9:50 am 13 Nov 20

Funding from public schools is clearly insufficient. I did an orientation tour through the highschool that my daughter has to attend (because it's almost impossible to go out of area in Canberra) just yesterday. I was pretty shocked at the state of the grounds. The classrooms were tiny and had barely any resources. And this school is less than 10 years old. I'd like to see a fairer funding model that ensures public schools (that are solely funded by tax payers) are taken care of first before funds are handed out to financially sound private schools. Especially given the vast majority of kids are schooled through the public system. It seems to me that would be a better and fairer division of resources.

Annette Schneider Annette Schneider 9:49 am 13 Nov 20

It would be good if these so called "philanthropists" actually payed tax and didn't use every loophole to avoid the law.

"The irony is studies have consistently shown that public school graduates perform better at university than their private school counterparts who struggle without their elaborate support systems."

James Daniels James Daniels 9:46 am 13 Nov 20

Seeing the article mentions Radford College, lets look at some actual funding figures. In 2018 Radford received $7,087 in recurrent government (Fed and ACT) funding per student and averaged $3 of government capital funding per student in the 3 years 2016-2018. Canberra High School received $14,206 and $713 respectively. Dickson College received $15,585 and $814. Students attending Radford receive only 45% the level of government funding going to nearby public schools. Radford does appear to have some investments, generating $483 of other private source income per student vs $88 and $185 for the public schools. Looking at ICSEA scores, Radford is in the 99th percentile while the public schools are in the 85th and 83rd respectively, still way beyond the Australian average. Parents sending their kids to Radford are subsidising the education of kids going to public schools, and without private schools everyone would need to pay more tax or the spending per student would be lower. Lefties like to say they're all about fairness. To me, fairness in education funding would be to fund all students to a base level that ensures a good education regardless of the school they attend, with additional funding to address disadvantage.

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