The wars have now outlasted roughly 15 prime ministers.
They predate Australia’s first TV broadcast, the switch to decimal currency and the polio vaccine – and according to one expert, they are unlikely to end soon.
Dr Glenn Savage is a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia and has written extensively on school funding.
“Because school funding is so politicised and because we have this strange mix of federal and state funding going to the different schooling sectors, no one is ever going to be happy, it seems, about any kind of announcement that’s made,” he says.
This politicisation of school funding has left Australian education in a fairly unique position, with a huge network of publicly funded private schools and a history fraught with conflict and compromise.
1866-1973: “Godless compulsory education”
By the start of the 20th century, Australia’s old system of publicly funded sectarian schools had been abolished, relegated to colonial history.
The transformation was sparked by Victoria’s 1872 Education Act.
Acting on the recommendations of an 1866 royal commission, the act stripped away funding from church schools and introduced free, compulsory, secular education in the colony.
The rest of Australia soon followed suit, and a model of education was established that carried the country from federation through to the 1960s.
The Goulburn Strike played a major role in bringing that model to an end, and its repercussions are still being felt today.
In 1962, six Goulburn Catholic schools shut up shop six weeks before the end of term, flooding the local state schools with 2000 new students.
The message was clear – if Catholic schools were left without funding they would be forced to close, and the state system was not even close to equipped to handle the resulting influx of students.
“The Catholic sector was saying ‘if we don’t get some support ... we’re going to go on strike and the kids will all have to flood back in to the public system’, which would put the already strained public system under even more pressure than it was under at the time,” Savage says.
Robert Menzies, renowned for his shrewd political instincts, would soon capitalise on the shift in public sentiment.
In 1963, nearly 100 years after the royal commission, Menzies promised to provide a science laboratory for all schools, government and non-government alike.
He took the policy to the 1963 election, and saw it endorsed in the form of an increased majority.
Three years after the 1963 election, and following a decade of fierce debate within the party, the Labor Party also abandoned its opposition to state aid for private schools.
In just a few short years, the debate had shifted from whether to fund private schools, to how – and Australia’s education system would never be the same.
“The developments in the ‘50s and ‘60s were just sort of antecedents, they were like adding pressure to the pressure cooker so to speak, and then by the time the ‘70s emerged, everything was under strain,” Savage says.
“The public system was under strain, there were huge inequalities in the provision and outcomes across the country, there were huge concerns around inequalities in the system and then the Catholic sector was also under significant strain, and so everything sort of came to a head in the 1970s, which was what largely led to the commissioning of the Karmel Report.”
1973-2001: The first modern funding model
Commissioned under Gough Whitlam, the Karmel Report (Schools in Australia: report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission), laid the foundation for Australia’s modern system of school funding.
Whereas non-government schools had previously received funding in the form of isolated, non-recurrent schemes like Menzies’ science labs policy, the Karmel Report recommended ongoing funding for all schooling sectors.
Public schools were to be funded fully, private schools would receive partial funding based on their need and the capacity of parents to pay.
The committee found it difficult to define “need”, but eventually decided that it would be determined by the resources available to schools, particularly the number of teachers per student.
Over the coming decades, this would prove to be a contentious point.
The Karmel Report also recommended that ‘block’ or ‘systemic’ funding be offered to private systems, meaning that they could opt to receive their funding as a lump sum, to distribute as they saw fit.
Savage describes the release of the Karmel Report as a watershed moment in the history of Australian education.
“It wasn’t the first time that schools had been funded by the Federal Government, but it was the first time that recurrent funding had been given, so what they did primarily was establish a [model] for the Federal Government as the majority funder for non-government schools...” he says.
“[The Karmel Report] set up this dynamic which has yet to be resolved and may never be resolved, which is the tension between having a federal and a state funding mix, where one level of government is providing the majority of funding to the non-government sector, and then you’ve got the states providing the majority to the public sector.”
2001-2011: “No school will lose a dollar”
The next major funding shake-up came under the Howard Government, with the 2001 introduction of the socioeconomic status (SES) funding model.
Under the model, parental capacity to pay was calculated based on the income of a school’s neighbourhood – an imperfect metric, but a more direct one than what existed previously.
Crucially, then-Education Minister David Kemp set the tone for 21st century school funding debates with his pledge that no school would lose money as a result of the change.
In another striking parallel to recent education history, the Catholic sector initially refused to sign on to the new model but was placated by a $300 million special fund in 2004.
“So Howard promised that no school would lose a dollar as a result of bringing it in, there was a special fund set up for Catholic schools to make sure they wouldn’t lose any money, it’s all very Groundhog Day, right?” Savage says.
That same year, then-Labor Leader Mark Latham published a controversial “hit list” of 67 wealthy private schools, promising to cut their funding if elected.
Polls showed that most voters approved, but the media response was merciless – the parameters of acceptable school funding policy were made clear.
Julia Gillard took heed, and in the lead-up to the first Gonski report she repeated Kemp’s pledge that no school would lose a dollar.
“I think it’s fundamentally contradictory to the aims of needs-based funding, you can’t have needs-based funding when no school loses a dollar, the only way that that would make any sense would be if every school was deemed to be underfunded, and that’s clearly not the case, at least in line with the Gonski model...” Savage says.
“[Because] you want to please the vested interests of people, more money always ends up being offered and this promise of no one losing gets repeated over and over again.
"The problem is, it gets repeated alongside the insistence that we need needs-based funding, so there’s a paradox there. You can’t have both of those at the same time.”
2011-current: The Gonski era
In 2011, David Gonski’s Review of Funding for Schooling, the first Gonski report, was released.
This was the genesis of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), a per-student funding target, calculated by analysis of funding levels at high-performing schools.
Two years later, Gonski’s recommendations would be partially legislated in the 2013 Education Act.
“Compromises were kind of made from the very beginning,” Savage says.
“What that amounted to was that no-one lost any money because ‘no school would lose a dollar’, everyone gained more money and so Gonski ended up being an incredibly expensive reform to bring in.
“And schools that should have, according to the Gonski formula ... [lost] money because they were technically over-funded with the new model, they didn’t lose any money ... you ended up with a really compromised version of what was intended in the beginning.”
In 2017, the Coalition passed the Quality Schools package, otherwise known as the Gonski 2.0 reforms.
Significantly, the reforms abolished the System Weighted Average (SWA), which had been used to calculate parental capacity to pay in systemic schools.
The change was expected to cost the Catholic sector billions, and necessitated a review of how SES was calculated.
The review was published this year, and recommended abandoning the Howard-era SES methodology in favour of one based directly on parental income.
The long-awaited change finally came about as part of this year’s $4.6 billion funding package, but went largely unreported due to the ensuing controversy.
Overall, Savage gives the package a mixed review.
“It’s actually a step, I think, in the right direction, in terms of providing a more nuanced measure of parental income by using taxable income rather than census data. It gives a better understanding of what need is in those schools,” he said.
“The issue though is that because they’re transitioning towards it over the period of a decade, that’s going to result in this $3.2 billion extra to this sector over that period.
“The other issue I think is the $1.2 billion choice and affordability fund, which people have been calling a 'slush fund', which I think is a bit questionable, in terms of like ‘why is that extra fund needed?’
“It’s got nothing to do with making the Gonski model any better, it just seems to be more politically motivated than anything else.”
The changes are scheduled to roll out over a decade, and Savage says that some schools will eventually lose money as a result.
“I think that that would be good and right, it would mean that we do have something close to needs-based funding,” he says.
“But 10 years is a long time and politicians are very aware of that, so you can make promises that extend into the vague future and then often those parties don’t need to be held accountable for that later on, because the political climate shifts, new promises are made and then the whole thing repeats.
"It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”