Driven by economic rationalist agendas, every administration - even Labour-run New South Wales - wants to reduce public expenditure while encouraging schools to generate more money from non-government sources.
Teachers reacted in January by planning a four-year, grass-roots campaign to persuade governments to provide more money for education. Sharan Burrow, Australian Education Union president, said the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard had broken pre-election commitments to maintain spending on public education.
Then in May, the government handed down its second budget which revealed a sharp switch in federal spending from public to private schools. As a result, federal funding for government schools will decline by 3.5 per cent between 1997 and 2001, while spending on private schools will rise by 15 per cent. By also abolishing the former Labour government's policy which placed limits on where new private schools could be established, and how many, the government had effectively deregulated Australian education, Ms Burrow said, and was forcing state schools "to pay for their own demise".
More conflict has been created by the planned introduction of league tables and mass standardised tests. State and federal education ministers have decided that all eight and 11-year-old primary pupils will sit annual literacy and numeracy tests starting with pilots in 1998.
Teachers were further alarmed by a government decision to deny unemployment benefits to 16 and 17-year-olds. Schools fear this will lead to thousands of unmotivated teenagers in classrooms.
Meanwhile, a serious teacher shortage is looming. Within three years, schools are likely to be short of almost 5,000 teachers. By 2003, demand for new teachers will be more than 18,000 - with only 11,000 graduates emerging from universities.