Opposition leader Tony Abbott says he is deeply sceptical about the affordability of school funding boosts recommended by the Gonski review and he believes public schools receive adequate funding currently.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged today that every independent school in Australia will see its funding increase no matter how wealthy.
In an unashamed pitch to the private school sector, Ms Gillard said the government's funding reforms would be "good news" for independent schools.
Her announcement, a major victory for the powerful private school lobby, goes beyond the government's previous pledge that no school would lose a dollar under funding reforms.
But Mr Abbott said he was deeply sceptical the additional funding recommended by the Gonski review was doable at this time given the fiscal demands faced by the federal and state governments including border protection and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
‘‘The idea another $5 billion a year might be forthcoming for Gonski ... the idea this kind of money is lying around waiting to be spent defies common sense,’’ Mr Abbott said.
‘‘My fear is the government is seeking to get credit for a reform the cost of which will be largely left to the states. The only way to ensure no school is worse off is to stick with the existing system.’’
The Prime Minister's announcement is designed to head off a Coalition scare campaign that private schools would be forced to increase fees because their funding would not rise in real terms under the long-awaited overhaul of school funding.
Mr Abbott said the Prime Minister was in full damage control mode after being confronted with a new independent school hit list.
"The fact is this is a Prime Minister who is writing cheque after cheque after cheque because she knows she will probably never have to cash it. This is a desperate government that will make any promise that it thinks it needs to get itself through the day," he said.
Mr Abbott promised that a Coalition govenrment would not require private schools to reveal the value of their assets on the My School website, something the federal government has flagged it could demand before it agrees to provide additional funding.
He said he could see no reason to change the way schools are funded despite the first major review of school funding in 40 years finding the existing model was unnecessarily complex and lacked coherence.
The states and the independent and Catholic education systems have raised concerns that modelling showed 3254 schools could lose out if the Gonski model were strictly applied.
This included 212 Catholic schools, 298 government schools and 14 independent schools in Victoria. However, the Gonski modelling assumes the government and Catholic systems would redistribute funding to ensure no school was worse off.
''Unless the government is prepared to release its own Gonski modelling, unless the government is prepared to indicate exactly where the added billions are coming from, the parents of Australia will know that their school’s funding is not safe under this Prime Minister," Mr Abbott said.
The Victorian government has also warned that if indexation in education funding was dropped, it would cost Victorian taxpayers up to $400 million within a decade.
At an independent education forum in Canberra today, Ms Gillard said there should be Australian government support to educate every child from the poorest and most remote school to the best-known and best-resourced school.
''Every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase under our plan,'' she said. ''This plan will lift school standards, not school fees.
''No matter how rich or poor your parents are or where you go to school, our nation should provide a basic degree of support to your education, because you are Australian, because you are part of the whole.
"All students, regardless of school, will be funded consistently for the first time."
Today's funding pledge is a massive departure from former Labor leader Mark Latham's private school ''hit list'', which would have resulted in 67 of the nation's wealthiest schools losing funding.
Labor has been determined not to antagonise the private school sector after the ''hit list'' - decried as ''19th-century class warfare'' - was one of the policies blamed for its 2004 election loss.
Ms Gillard lavishly praised independent schools for their support for government reforms and sought to dispel any lingering notions of class envy.
"I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought 'that’s not fair'”, she said.
''I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think 'that’s a great example'.''
David Gonski, who chaired the first major review into school funding in 40 years, was tasked with ensuring no school would lose a dollar as a result of its recommendations.
However, Ms Gillard has gone a step further in saying every independent school will see its funding increase.
The federal government's final response to the Gonski review, originally expected early this week, has been delayed until next month.
The review recommended the federal and state governments boost spending on education by $5 billion a year, based on 2009 figures, with most of the funding to go to public schools.
The model aims to address disadvantage by allocating a standard amount for every student, with added loadings for students with a disability and those from low-income, indigenous or non-English speaking backgrounds.
The Commonwealth is expected to tip in $3 billion - double the amount suggested by the Gonski review - with the states also required to contribute. The funding will be conditional on schools submitting a plan on how they would improve student results, and on more training and annual performance reviews for teachers.
Ms Gillard said: ''Australia doesn't just need a reform to the school funding system. Australia needs a plan for school improvement, a plan which gives schools the resources you need to get better results for the kids you teach.''
She acknowledged that independent schools needed to plan and budget for 2014 and beyond, given the existing funding model expires at the end of 2013.
However she said the current system of schools funding was tremendously complex and that meant even changes to simplify it had complex elements.
"So this does take time. I’ve worked hard in government to maintain a close and continuing partnership with your sector. But keeping that discussion open and real can mean we stay at the table longer to get better outcomes together."
Independent Schools Council of Australia chairman John Ralston said he looked forward to working with the Prime Minister and government on a range of initiatives.
"It is and will be a continuing challenge to work with you but it will be an enjoyable challenge," he told Ms Gillard.
"We believe we can work with you and look forward to working with you."
Greens leader Christine Milne did not rule out opposing the legislation, if it contained provisions to increase private school funding above real-term funding increases.
‘‘We’ll have a look at the legislation when it comes in, but it has to be the needs-based model that gives, of course, the overwhelming level of support to the students who need it and the schools that really need it,’’ Senator Milne said.
‘‘We have said many times, we have not supported the inequitable funding model that has led to a situation where many students across Australia with the greatest level of disadvantage have been forced to remain in that disadvantage, and worst still, teachers are blamed for it.’’
But she said the Greens would not support penalising teachers who failed to increase their students’ results without increased funding for their schools.
‘‘I cannot abide, as a former teacher, the notion that teachers are blamed when schools are not funded to be able to do what they would like to do and what they know the students need.
‘‘We need to get back to this idea that we need to make education equitable. I think Tony Abbott needs to accept that equality of opportunity means equal access to educational opportunity. And if he’s not prepared to support that then he’s not prepared to support equal access.’’
The Australian Education Union today launched its Sea of Hands, 6700 green hands stuck into the lawns of Parliament House to represent every government school in the country.
Federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said renewed debate over private school funding was a distraction.
‘‘The government made it clear two years ago no school would lose a single dollar and I see today’s announcement largely [as] a continuation of that pledge. The time for speculation is over; let’s get on with the announcement and let’s get on with funding reform.’’
However, Mr Abbott said independent school pupils received under 70 per cent of the total state and Commonwealth funding of a public school student.
‘‘So there is no question of injustice to public schools, if anything the injustice is the other way.’’
Mr Abbott also said NAPLAN test results should not be used in any funding formula for schools.
The Gonski review recommended calculating a base level of funding on the cost of educating students at schools where 80 per cent of students achieve above the national minimum in NAPLAN tests.
‘‘It is the strong view of the Coalition that NAPLAN data should not be used in any funding formula,’’ Mr Abbott said.
With BIANCA HALL, CRAIG BUTT