Australian public education is free, compulsory and secular.
Or at least that was the intention of the early colonial bourgeoisie whose Public Instruction Acts of the 1880s decreed such to be the case.
Yet it was revealed a couple of days ago in the South Australian daily paper The Advertiser that thousands of parents have been prosecuted for failing to pay public school fees this year.
In fact 271 parents had been issued arrest warrants for failing to appear in court over the matter.
Arrest warrants? For failure to pay fees in a supposedly free system??!!
But don’t get angry yet.
Some 34% of school age children go to Catholic and private schools. You see, public education is not only not free, it is not really compulsory.
The ruling class has made a religion of the choice agenda, starving public schools of funds and forcing parents who want to do the right thing by their children to seek out the much better funded private alternative.
Most OECD countries have private school enrolments of around 4-5%, so Australia’s more than one-third is truly testimony to the appeal of the neoliberal gospel.
But don’t get angry yet.
The private schools are better funded not just because they enrol students from wealthy families, but because – unlike other OECD countries – government funds are used to offset the costs of private schooling!
We like to be different in Australia!
A common myth is that public schools are funded by the State and territory governments and that private schools are funded by the Commonwealth.
It’s a bit more complex than that, a bit like the yin-yang symbol which is predominantly black and white, but with a bit of white in the black and vice versa.
So let’s get back to school fees.
A component of the school fee (both public and private) can be paid for poorer families by the State government. Families must endure the humiliation of applying to be on the School Card, a list of low income families who get part, but not all, of their fees paid.
For the three years 2009, 2010 and 2011 there were some 50,000 School Card approvals. Nearly all applications and approvals are made in Term 1 when school fees are charged to parents. The figure for 2012 is 30,000. That is a massive 40% drop in School Card numbers.
There must be a reason for the drop, and it sure as hell saves the State government a whole lot of money!
We need to know whether the decline is in public schools only, or whether it extends across the Catholic and private sectors as well.
School Card payments are quite a lucrative source of income for the privates.
Here is a table of some non-government schools, their student numbers and the School Card payments they received in 2011:
This is just a handful of schools in the private sector that not only get a substantial part of their recurrent and capital costs paid by the federal government, but also get hundreds of thousands each from the state government as a result of parents prepared to pay thousands of dollars in fees to get out of the public system, but who then turn back to the public purse to get part of those fees paid in the form of a School Card!
But don’t get angry just yet.
The apparently random list above has one factor in common. All of these schools also get from the state government a fee remission payment in excess of $60,000.
So what the hell is a fee remission payment?
Fee remission is an interesting concept. It applies to those non-School Card holders in the non-government sector who are unable to pay fees or school debts due to economic hardship!
Elite Prince Alfred College claimed $48,942.17 in fee remissions from the state government in 2011, significantly less than the schools above (which are middle and low-fee as far as private fees go). But why a private college catering for the rich should get 17 cents from the public purse, let alone the other $48,000-plus is beyond me.
And now we can start to get angry, because we can put those fee remission payments next to the School Card payments:
Only one of the schools above is a boarding school - Rostrevor - in the leafy green eastern suburbs and it gets an additional $166,423.21 to help defray the cost of providing pastoral care to its boarders! Prince Alfred College, mentioned above, received $244,492.17.
So can you see why there is basis for anger?
Parents who are resisting the lure of “private is better” are chased by the system to the point of arrest over non-payment of fees in a supposedly free public system, while those who thumb their noses at public schooling can get all sort of additional government subsidies to shelter them from the pain of paying fees in the private system.
This is a matter of the grossest social injustice!