Delegates attending the annual conference of the Australian Education Union in Melbourne who agreed a four-year campaign will start by calling for reform of the tax system to increase the amount of revenue available to governments, and thereby boost spending on schools.
In an unprecedented move, the conference called for an increase in the top marginal rate of income tax. It said the government should pay greater attention to tax avoidance and minimisation, introduce a minimum tax rate to all companies and individuals above an appropriate threshold, and apply progressive tax measures, such as levies, for areas of public priority.
The conference also voted to vigorously oppose the introduction of league tables of schools in any form and the use of mass standardised tests to enable public comparisons of schools.
Delegates overwhelmingly supported a motion stating: "The AEU will campaign actively with its members, parents, students, progressive academics and community groups to oppose the divisive, ideologically driven manipulation of the notions of 'accountability' and 'choice', which fosters the climate within which league tables and other forms of school by school comparisons can be made to appear publicly acceptable."
The strategy to be developed for the four-year campaign will include publicity and industrial and political elements. Apart from increasing the funding of public education, and resisting the introduction of league tables, the aim will be to raise the status of teachers.
"Without an adequate revenue base, no country can provide the essential social infrastructure such as quality schooling," said Sharan Burrow, the union's general secretary. "This is not only morally bankrupt in that it has betrayed our children, but it is also economically short-sighted because it fails to provide the investment a country needs to remain competitive."
Federal budget revenue has fallen by 2 per cent of the gross domestic product, or by $10 billion, (Pounds 5bn) over the past decade, and Australia is now the third-lowest taxed country in the 27-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Ms Burrow attacked the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard for breaking its pre-election commitments to maintain spending on public education and for its "privatisation agenda". She said the union would call on Australia's church leaders to oppose on moral grounds the government's lifting of restrictions on establishment of new private schools.
"We have seen church leaders take a stand on other moral issues, and while some churches will benefit from the change in policy we hope they will use their conscience and consider what we have to say," she said.
The union also pledged to raise the status of the profession. With the exception of one or two states, Australia has no system of registration to ensure that teachers are properly qualified. With a mobility rate of 10 per cent across the country, and an emerging common market with New Zealand, these were critical issues that were long overdue for resolution, the union agreed.
This was even more vital given the serious shortfall in teacher numbers that Australia faced. Ms Burrow said the current surplus of teacher education graduates was likely to become a minor shortfall next year, increasing to 4,700 in 2000 and deepening further to 7,000 in 2003 when demand for new teachers was projected to be more than 18,000, yet only 11,000 graduates were expected to be emerging from universities.