The Turnbull government could head off a crippling fight with the Catholics and a worsening internal split by agreeing to delay for one year its new school funding deal for the Catholic sector.
It is understood Education Minister Simon Birmingham could offer the Catholic sector – whose schools will go backwards under the Gonski 2.0 package – as well as all other non-government schools a year’s reprieve while a review is conducted into the socio-economic status (SES) methodology which underpins how funding is distributed under the needs-based model.
The Catholic sector argues the formula is flawed because it disadvantages them against non-Catholic independent schools.
The concession, which is being demanded by Coalition rebels including Liberal Senator Chris Back, has surfaced after direct threats to the minister from Catholic education officials on Monday night. It would have little effect on the other non-government schools but save the Catholic schools $62 million they otherwise would have lost next year under the new model. Several Coalition MPs, including Senator Back, Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott – who slashed school funding in his first budget -raised concerns at Tuesday’s party room meeting. But a significant number of others also argued for the package.
Senator Birmingham left the door open for the compromise earlier on Tuesday morning when he said the government was working through “technical issues”. He remains upset at the Catholic sector which faces a funding cut only because it was over-funded by Labor’s Gonski model in order to reach a political deal.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that has been spread by vested interests who are keen to get better deals, extract extra dollars during this process. What we want to see though is a final model that puts in place the type of principles that the Gonski report advocated for,” he said.
Treasurer Scott Morrison concurred: “I think there’s a lot of politics going on in this debate, and I think the education of the children has to be beyond politics, beyond unions, beyond any sort of sectional interests here, beyond special deals. It has to be focused on ensuring we have a fair needs based system.”
Any such concession such as a one-year delay and review will help with the passage of the legislation via the Senate crossbench but further rule out the Greens who have capitulated to the Australian Education Union which has threatened them against doing a deal. Non-governmet schools may also rebel.
The Greens failed to reach a position at a another party room meeting on Tuesday and will now refer the matter to their National Council. However, they did resolve to support nothing which cuts a special deal for the Catholic sector.
The split in the AEU has also worsened. The union’s Western Australian branch is against the national position to oppose an extra $18.6 billion in funding over 10 years and on Tuesday, the union’s former national president, Dianne Foggo, agreed.
In a letter to all parties, she urged the AEU to support a deal offered to the Greens in which the money would be spent more quickly than 10 years so support to needy public schools would be fast-tracked.
“I implore you to support the bill with the tighter funding arrangements raised by the Greens,” Ms Foggo writes.
“This is one of the most crucial potential improvements for funding for public education in decades, please do something positive to restore equity to our public education systems.”
Ms Foggo agrees with Labor that the Turnbull government package falls short by $22 billion that Labor would spend, however, it is “on the principle of needs-based funding into the future that the Turnbull government’s bills must be supported”.
Ms Foggo said she expected “opprobrium” for her views.
“However, I cannot in all conscience stay silent when there is an opportunity to change the current schools funding regime for a better one.”
To placate the Greens, the government is prepared to negotiate their key demands of an independent body to monitor school funding, increased requirements to ensure the states don’t pull back on funding and negate the increased contribution from Canberra, and possible to spend the extra $18.6 billion in funding quicker than over a decade.
If it was allocated in six years, it would cost the budget an extra $1.5 billion over the four-year forward estimates and $5 billion extra over the decade.
If allocated in eight years, it would cost $600 million extra over four years and $2.6 billion more over the decade.
At this stage, the government is refusing to commit more money.
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