A campaign that has made history

Maurie Mulheron

Regardless of the election outcome, the issue of schools funding will continue to be a priority of the union. After all, recurrent funding pays for just about everything except bricks and mortar.

The campaign to fix schools funding really started in earnest 20 years ago at a time when the Howard government was in power.

Howard’s funding scheme was called the SES (Socio-Economic Status) model. It delivered extraordinary increases to wealthy private schools but not one dollar to any public school. It was corrupt, unfair and indefensible.

But it took some 10 years for the campaign to gain traction.

Prior to the 2007 federal election Labor committed to extending the SES model for a further four years, from 2009 to 2012, but, in response to the Australian Education Union (AEU) campaign, agreed to hold a full inquiry into schools funding during its first term of office.

This was the first significant breakthrough.

The then education minister, Julia Gillard, announced in April 2010 the establishment of the Review of Funding for Schooling to be headed by businessman, David Gonski.

For the next 18-month period the AEU organised a national campaign, called “Public Schools — For Our Future”, which ran over the entire 18-month period of the Gonski inquiry.

The campaign resulted in the largest member and community mobilisation ever in support of a more equitable school funding scheme. As a result of the campaign the Gonski panel received more than 6000 submissions from public schools and their teachers, parents and principals across Australia. The review received 7000 submissions in total.

The campaign featured national television, press and radio advertising, targeted action in marginal seats and vans touring every area of NSW. A bus tour of east coast federal electorates in January and February 2012 between Brisbane and Geelong was also conducted prior to the release of the report on February 20, 2012.

The report recommended that a new model, sector-blind but needs-aware, should be introduced and funded as a matter of urgency.

In June 2012, the “I Give a Gonski” campaign was launched and a national day of action held on July 24 to pressure the Labor government to adopt the recommendations of the Gonski Review.

The campaign gathered national support for the recommendations of the review with school communities, business, welfare, Indigenous, disability and community groups, all calling for action from the Gillard government.

By this stage more than 100,000 members of the community pledged their support for the Gonski recommendations on the “I Give a Gonski” website.

On August 20, 2012, a sea of signed cardboard hands with the names of all 6700 public schools was placed outside Parliament House and the prime minister met Gonski supporters on that day to discuss the government’s response.

Finally, on September 3, 2012 the federal government announced it would adopt most of the recommendations of the Gonski Review and negotiate historic agreements with state and territory governments that would provide the money schools urgently required.

Now the race was on to get the states to sign up.

In early November 2012, more than 500,000 letters were delivered to households across Australia calling for all governments to sign Gonski agreements. Gonski forums were also held in marginal seats across Australia.

On November 28, the legislation was introduced into federal parliament.

In February 2013, an open letter signed by former Labor leaders and state premiers, as well as high-profile business and community leaders in support of Gonski, was published and delivered to Julia Gillard. The following month saw Gonski supporters campaigning in the electorates of then NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell, and Queensland premier, Campbell Newman.

In April 2013, NSW became the first state to sign up to a deal that would see an additional $5 billion invested over six years. This was an historic moment. A conservative state government and an ALP federal government achieved bipartisan support for a fairer funding deal.

In May, national campaign rallies were held in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory to ensure the other states signed up.

On June 26, 2013, the Gonski legislation passed through the Australian parliament, putting in place the landmark reforms to the ways schools are resourced.

The ACT, South Australian and Victorian governments followed NSW, signing agreements between May and August. On August 2, after two years of opposition to the Gonski reforms, the federal Coalition pledged to honour them in government but only for four years.

But within weeks of winning government the Abbott-led Coalition government attempted to tear up the Gonski agreements, stating it would renegotiate funding arrangements with every state and territory government for public schools, which would have to share a smaller pool of funding. Private schools were to receive their full share.

This announcement sparked such a storm of protest that the Coalition reversed the decision six days later. It agreed to give all states and territories federal Gonski funding but refused to enforce any requirement for them to spend the money on schools.

The campaign to secure the full six years of transition funding started in early 2014 with a national tour involving four Gonski vans covering more than 22,500km and arriving in Canberra in March.

A pilot program of target seat organising was also begun in NSW, South Australia and Tasmania.

In the May 2014 budget the Abbott government confirmed it would not fund the final two years. This has remained the federal Coalition’s position as we face the July 2016 election.

At the start of the 2016 school year, the ALP committed to provide the $4.5 billion needed to fully fund the Gonski agreements it negotiated when last in office. The party has also pledged, if it is elected, to reverse the $30 billion reduction to school funding over the next decade as announced by the Coalition in its 2014 budget.

So, regardless of the election outcome the campaign to secure fairer funding for public schools will be permanent.

We have come too far, campaigned for too long, to ever relinquish what has been achieved so far.

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