Private schools don't save taxpayers' dollars

16 March 2020
Education researchers from three Australian universities have crunched government numbers, and countered an oft-held belief in the process.

A new analysis of My School website data challenges long-held beliefs about school funding in Australia, including that non-government schools represent a big saving to taxpayers and therefore warrant public subsidies.

Education researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Wollongong and University of Canberra have collaborated with practitioners on new research which raises questions about the equity, efficiency and efficacy of Australia’s unusual hybrid system of schools, where students are educated in government, Catholic and independent sectors.

Their report, ‘The School Money-Go-Round: Balancing the claims about school funding’, was released at national and international affairs and culture publication Inside Story today.

Chief among the myths dispelled in the report is the belief that the existence of non-government schools in Australia represents a saving to taxpayers.

“The logic is that if privately educated children went to public schools, then taxpayers would spend a lot more than the subsidy private schools receive from state and federal governments,” said report co-author Rachel Wilson, Associate Professor in Educational Assessment, research methods and evaluation at the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work.

“Some have claimed that saving to be anything up to $8 billion in recurrent funding each year.

“But our analysis of the My School funding data shows that, at least in the case of two-thirds of non-government schools, government funding produces no savings at all.”

The researchers said this is because non-government schools are now funded at the same or higher level as similar public schools.

“We now have, at the very least, two equivalently-funded school systems – with one of them substantially advantaged by additional and unregulated private funding, while enjoying a lesser set of rules and obligations,” Dr Wilson said.  

In fact, governments would have come out ahead if all new school enrolments since 2011 had gone to public schools, Dr Wilson said.

“To do that would have involved capital expenditure, of course, but even the capital savings created by competing school sectors are less than a third of the amounts frequently claimed,” she said.

The report also explores:

  • How a partially subsidised choice of schools has become, in two thirds of schools, a fully subsidised choice – and a dominant policy driver
  • The educational, equity and social consequences of this approach
  • Whether the obligations and expectations of government and non-government schools should be more similar

“Australia will always have both government and non-government schools – they provide an element of choice and diversity. But it is important to reassess what we have created and fully understand and debate the costs and benefits of our current framework of schools,” Dr Wilson said.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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