Education Opinion

Churches taking funding from public schools — it's abuse

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Religious schools receive funding from government subsidies, compulsory fees and tax-deductible donations (Image by Roxanne Minnish via Pexels)

Religious schools that once begged for limited monetary support now demand and receive a disproportionate amount of government funding, ensuring permanent disadvantage to public school children, writes Tom Orren.

WHAT IS abuse?

According to lawyers Slater and Gordon there is no legal definition, but certain elements are associated with it. It can be an intentional, sometimes unintentional, action or inaction that harms the victim while rewarding the abuser.

Institutional abuse is when people in care (including school children) are mistreated due to an imbalance of power or when there is an unfulfilled expectation of trust. It can also involve taking advantage of a position of power to coerce others. Finally, there is "financial abuse", where one person (or group) causes a disadvantage by taking control of economic resources that rightly belong to another.

Churches and public school children

According to the Bible, Jesus said to 'love your neighbourand talked specifically about loving "the little children". Even further, that we should love our enemies. So why do churches that preach "love thy neighbour" on Sunday treat public school children differently from Monday to Friday? At least, that’s the way it looks.

Far from loving the children in public schools, churches do everything in their power to deny them the best education possible. Otherwise, why would they keep lobbying for funding that ensures that public school students will always get less than students in religious schools?

The reason is simple — the marketing of religious schools depends on the perception of "superiority", so these schools insist on a system where they will always have "superior" funding. Their funding comes in three forms: government subsidies, compulsory fees and tax-deductible donations (the latter two of which are denied to public schools).

How do churches justify this systematic inequality?

The subsidisation of religious schools is often justified on the grounds it provides choice for parents. Still, it’s not a choice for everyone because it only applies to parents who can afford to pay fees. Besides, if choice is so important, why are public school parents forced to use schools to which their children are allocated?

More importantly, "free choice" may not be all it’s cracked up to be. There’s an economic parable that illustrates this.

Imagine a football game where every spectator is happy to watch from his or her allocated seat. However, during a particularly exciting passage of play, the people in the front row "choose" to stand up, blocking the view of all those sitting behind them. As a result, those people also have to stand. When they do, they block the view of all those behind them. This continues until everyone in the stadium has to stand, even though they’d all be happier watching the game from their seats.

In other words, the choices made by a small number of people can have an adverse impact on a far larger group — who were better off the way things were. The subsidisation of private schools in Australia creates just such a paradox.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, most Australians were happy to send their children to free public schools, while a minority "chose" to pay for their children to attend private schools. Then churches begged the government for modest funding to cover the costs of toilet blocks and science labs. Once they got it, the churches realised they had some political muscle — so they started flexing it.

No longer satisfied with just a little help, churches started demanding equal funding and – when they got that – then insisted on more than equal funding. Ironically, these same churches also preach about the cardinal sin of greed.

We deserve more because we pay more

Churches argue that their schools "deserve" more because parents "choose" to pay fees, but should that place public schools at a permanent disadvantage? Nobody mentioned that when religious schools first asked for help! If they had, I’m sure the public would quickly have gone cold on the idea.

The "superiority strategy" currently employed by private schools also creates the perception that public schools are "inferior". This perceived "gap" motivates some parents to pay anywhere between $2,000 and $45,000 a year for a service that many were previously happy to access for free.

In effect, government subsidies are enabling private schools to degrade the image of public education — and their fees have become a de facto "premium education tax" to avoid what parents are told is an inferior (or even harmful) government service.

Because they’re paid by choice, many think these "fees-cum-taxes" are acceptable. However, the private sector’s marketing strategy means that for many, private education is no longer a matter of choice. It’s a matter of real anxiety that many children will be "harmed" by an underfunded public system. In other words, many people feel forced to pay for something that should be free.

Imagine the uproar if the government subsidised certain footpaths, parks or beaches for the sole use of those who could pay fees while allowing "public" footpaths, parks and beaches to fall into disrepair. If any system needs extra funding, it’s the public system.

Former NSW politician Elisabeth Kirkby is once reputed to have said public schools should be so well funded that nobody in their right mind would pay for private education.

So, how did this come about?

In the 1960s, a small number of struggling Catholic schools humbly asked (and eventually protested) for government support. That modest funding – for a small number of Catholic schools – has grown into generous subsidisation for every religious school in the country. Another analogy might put this into perspective.

Imagine driving along and seeing someone who needs help, so you pull over and give him a lift. At first, he's grateful, but after a while, he complains about not having his own car and later becomes argumentative. Then he gets bolder and asks if he can drive your car and, to keep the peace, you agree.

Soon after, he tells you that his destination is well past yours and that he'll need your car for the day. You’re not quite sure how it got to this stage, but you don’t feel like you have much choice, so you agree. Besides, he said he'd pick you up on the way home, so you let him go. That afternoon, you wave when you see your car coming, but it drives straight past. Now it’s you who has to hitch.

Religious schools that once begged for limited funding now receive money for luxuries like pools. No longer are they asking for "just a little" help, they’re demanding more than public schools.

What about efficiency?

Some justify subsidising private schools by pointing to other subsidised industries, asking, “Why not us too?” But time and time again, economists have shown that propping up inefficient industries makes consumers pay more — and private schools are no exception.

It is beyond question that public schools are more efficient. It costs far less to educate a child in a public school than in a private school, so why subsidise a less efficient (more costly) education system?

Not only does subsidisation mean a less efficient system overall, but money is being thrown away. If we invested in the most efficient system, there’d be more money for every school. On the other hand, if it really does cost "that much" to educate a child, why are public school children being denied access to the same overall level of funding?

Saving the government money

Advocates of private education often claim that it would cost more to educate everyone in the public system, but parallel systems cost more to operate than a single system. For example, imagine every phone company or electricity retailer had to run its own lines to every house. A single system offers greater opportunities to plan and achieve economies of scale, while dual systems always result in duplication and waste. Subsidising private schools for a minority ends up costing everyone more.

Let’s talk costs

On average, public schools across Australia receive 87.1% of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), while private schools receive 104.3%. And they will continue to be overfunded until 2029, when public schools will still receive only 91% of the SRS.

Over that time, about $6 billion a year will have been diverted from public school students to private schools. Save Our Schools Australia (SOS) estimates the cumulative underfunding of public schools from 2022 to 2029 will be $53 billion.

The average cost of educating a child at a public high school is about $15,000 per year, but some private schools are spending upwards of $20,000 or $40,000 per student. Even the poorest spend $1,000 or $2,000 more than public schools. If we extrapolated that extra cost across Australia, the total amount would be staggering.

But we pay taxes too!

Another justification for subsidising private schools is that because parents pay taxes, they deserve "some funding". However, "some funding" shouldn't mean "more funding". There is no logic in subsidising private schools to have more than public schools. And there is no moral or ethical argument that can support it. In fact, churches that preach about love should insist that public school children get at least the same funding.

This could be achieved in two ways: public schools could be given extra funding to match that of religious schools, or religious schools could only be subsidised to a level where their total funding – fees, plus subsidies, plus donations – equals that of public schools.

For example, if it costs $15,000 per year to educate a child in a public high school, then schools charging fees higher than $15,000 should get no subsidies.

Are churches really "abusing" public school children?

Are public school students being harmed because they cannot access the same overall funding as students in private schools? Yes. Are the actions (or inactions) of churches harming public school children while rewarding children in church schools? Yes.

Is there an imbalance of political power that places public school students at a disadvantage? Yes.

Should churches have a duty of care to all children? According to their own doctrines, yes. Is there an unfulfilled expectation of trust by churches to all children? Yes.

Do churches act to ensure that all students have equal access to education funding? No.

Do churches use their political power to gain a financial advantage over public schools? Yes.

Do churches coerce political parties to give them preferential funding? Yes.

Have church schools taken resources that should go to public schools? Yes.

All these elements demonstrate that churches are denying public school children what they expect to provide children in religious schools. Far from loving children, it appears they couldn’t care less about them and in my humble opinion, that constitutes abuse.

Tom Orren is a retired head teacher.

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