Private sector soaks up state cash
Australia's government schools have never felt so threatened as they do now.
With all but one of the six states and territories, and the nation as a whole, now dominated by conservative administrations, private schools are receiving political and financial support on an unprecedented scale.
Although they enrol only 30 per cent of the nation's pupils, the top private schools also educate the children of the wealthiest and most influential people in the country, including those of most conservative politicians.
Only in New South Wales does the Labor party still hold power and only there do teachers believe their views will be heard and listened to. Elsewhere, the Australian Education Union has been in conflict throughout almost the entire year with the states and territories over salary rises for teachers and their worsening working conditions .
In Western Australia, teacher strikes and a year-long ban on all voluntary activities, including organising excursions, camps and sports days, finally forced the state government to negotiate.
In South Australia, it took a change of premier before teacher complaints were given a proper hearing. In Victoria, the most radical economic rationalist government of them all continued its attacks by shutting down more schools, making hundreds more teachers redundant and offering staff a 6 per cent pay rise when the union was demanding a 19 per cent increase.
The election of a new federal government in March saw the long-serving Labor party lose office. John Howard, who admits to being Australia's most conservative politician, became prime minister and immediately set about slashing Commonwealth spending, selling off public assets, reducing the size of the public sector, and changing the funding balance between public and private schools.
In a move the teachers union described as a devastating blow to government schooling, the conservatives abandoned Labor's policy of restricting the growth of private schools. In the Howard government's first budget, schools minister Dr David Kemp also announced a new scheme of spending on private education that is likely to lead to an explosive expansion.
Dr Kemp argued that private schools cost governments less and that they promoted competition which would eventually raise the standard of publicly-funded schools. In a multicultural society, governments should be prepared to support the wishes of religious and cultural groups to form their own schools, he said.
Under the changes, for every student who switches to a private school, government schools will lose federal funding equivalent to nearly five students. As the government predicts that up to 60,000 students will move to the private sector by the year 2000, the union estimates that public education will lose more than 50 million dollars (Pounds 25m) and that by 2015, almost no federal money will flow to state schools.
At present, the states and territories finance most of the operations of government schools, but the amount the Commonwealth provides is still significant, especially for schools suffering socio-economic disadvantage or which have high proportions of migrant children.
The Australian Education Union's president, Sharan Burrow, said state school systems were being forced to pay for their own demise as the federal government promised increased private school places while progressively withdrawing funds for government schools.
"Equity, fairness, commitment to universal free and quality public schooling are under threat. Schools minister Kemp and the education minister (Senator Amanda Vanstone) seem to have eradicated these concepts from public policy, " Ms Burrow said.