Quality education for all: towards an educational commons

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Introduction: The challenge of making Catholic Schools more inclusive

Catholic Education Offices around Australia recently began to offer concessions on school fees to the children of parents with health cards. My research indicates that Catholic Education Offices are using the health card holder option to increase their enrolments, which have been declining in some parts of Australia [1]. The reasons for this are complex, and include high occupational health and safety costs, very high special needs inclusion costs, upgrading educational and ICT facilities, and ‘fire-proofing’ schools to protect them from litigious parents.

The public response has so far been negligible because low socio-economic status (SES) families are generally better catered for in government schools, where, because of full-funding, the costs of meeting disability and other inclusive standards have to be borne regardless of enrolment patterns. In some places families that are already on concessionary dispensations in Catholic schools are applying to go on the health card rebate.

Linking inclusive Catholic Schools with Disability Standards

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The reason for the introduction of the health card policy at this time is partially due to the introduction of disability standards that all schools are required to meet by December 2007. These standards have until recently been avoided by several non-government schools which appealed under the ‘undue hardship’ clauses in HREOC legislation that have now been revoked in order to meet Australia’s international treaty obligations for inclusive education.

The challenge of meeting the new disability standards is particularly difficult for Catholic schools, which have historically employed separatist means of educating students of difference, with schools for the deaf, the blind, the intellectually impaired, etc. The infrastructure (capital) costs associated with making educational provision inclusive are colossal and there is little scope for meeting these in every Catholic school without raising fees.

While most Catholic schools would have little or no difficulty in filling their books with fee-paying students, increasing numbers of whom are non-Catholic (long gone are the days of restricting such enrolments to 10%), the Australian Catholic Bishops have asked Catholic schools to do all in their power to make themselves accessible to lower SES students, and especially to Catholics who cannot pay fees. The Australian Catholic educational funding policy strategy of negotiating at the margins for funding increases will not sustain this expectation.

In an age when the global hallmark of schooling is its inclusivity, an interesting question is confronting the Bishops: is a Catholic school the same as a school for Catholics? Some clergy and members of the episcopate have responded that a Catholic school cannot be expected to provide an effective Religious Education mode, particularly one that promotes evangelisation and faith development, if substantial numbers of its students are non-Catholic or secularised.

In many rural and remote parts of Australia and increasingly in townships and the suburbs Catholic schools now register between 30 and 70% non-Catholic enrolments. Those who support this situation generally point out that without such non-Catholic support such schools would not be available and affordable to the decreasing numbers of Catholics who enrol in them. The future identity of Catholic schools is now in question. Can such schools be regarded as Catholic schools and to what extent can the Catholic Church accept an alteration to the ethos of its schools without loss of their Catholicity?

Thomas Groome, a prominent American Jesuit educationalist, points out that US inner-city Catholic schools have long been the preserve of African-American and Puerto Rican families of non-Catholic affiliation, who have used the parochial school system, often at low or no cost, to improve their social status and life chances. Groome justifies the provision of Catholic schools in predominantly non-Catholic Third World countries in similar terms: in other words he offers a social justice argument for such schools to continue to be called Catholic. Groome therefore proposes that the hallmark of contemporary Catholic schooling globally should be its inclusivity and in particular its preferential treatment of the poor.

Hill of Crosses, thanks to sxc

No comparable situation exists in Australia, where the new non-Catholic clients of Catholic schools can hardly be described as poor, especially if the fees and funding they attract are expected to defray the costs of educating Catholic children. Some schools have responded to such changes by creating and appointing administrators with special responsibility for maintaining and preserving their Catholic mission. However, modern missionary endeavour is actually about justice, not maintenance. It needs to respond to contemporary culture and not attempt to preserve a religious tradition in aspic; to critically engage with new realities rather than looking to an imagined past for comfort and solace.

Assessing the NCEC’s response to dilemmas of identity and inclusion

In recent times the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC), under pressure from new appointees, has bought into the logic of the above argument and staked a funding claim for the next Commonwealth education budget of 80% of the cost of operating a state school, which is a rise of nearly 20% on its current allocation.

There are several problems with this proposal. The first is that it falls short of the 100% that it needs in order to provide and sustain a quality of service in its schools that is equivalent to that of state schools. However the NCEC will not ask for 100% because it believes that such a change would result in the loss of a Catholic ethos – a development that has not occurred in other countries where Catholic schools are fully publicly funded and part of a diverse public education framework.

There is no analysis or critique offered in any of the Australian Catholic universities which provides the graduates who teach and administer Catholic schools with an understanding of the nature and process of education reform and deregulation. Australian Catholic education is still mired in the policy discourses, memories and myths of a long expired statist past when state control of all public services and amenities was favoured, a situation that hardly exists today.

Australian Catholic educational administrators, particularly in the Catholic Education Offices that run the school system in every Australian diocese, have little or no funding policy literacy, other than to trumpet a meaningless mantra which has done a great disservice to Catholic and Australian education. This mantra is regularly used before elections to organise a parental beat-up that few politicians would be courageous enough to challenge. One who did so in a Queensland election in the 90s, a State Labor minister and former member of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Paul Braddy, was discharged from his education portfolio, even though his differentiated funding policy won the day.

Negative effects on all schools of the Catholic funding strategy

The arguments used to resist fundamental funding policy change in the name of safeguarding Catholic educational autonomy have simply served to expand a non-government school sector, which is now funded on the coat-tails of Catholic schools, and which, in fundamentalist schools at least, promotes an anti-Catholic, anti-public good, anti-scientific and irrational curriculum.

The increasingly artificial solidarity between non-government schools has alienated the public education system, with which Catholic education has much in common as a provider of an education serving the public good.

Indeed, the strongest argument for the full funding of Catholic schools is the public one. Roman teaching states that a Catholic school is not a private school, and Catholic schools still fulfil a critical public function by helping to educate Australia’s poor – though for how much longer is anybody’s guess — at very little cost and without much recognition. They do so in the face of increasingly vehement opposition and scorn from those who regard education as a vehicle for achieving private advantage.

It would be a pity if Catholic schools in Australia were to be lost precisely because of their fear of a state-based takeover.

Proposals for enhancing the Common Good of all schools in Australia

In an Australian context, where private school providers account for nearly 40% of school enrolments – the largest in the OECD — it is not enough to regard education as a public good. That battle was lost in the ideological wars of the 1950s and 60s.

I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma that should appeal to all educators of goodwill, whether religious or secular.

A new approach, which should build common ground between public education supporters and Catholic social teaching adherents, would be to uphold education as a ‘common good’. To do this we would need to establish that there is such a thing as an education commons — similar to the global environmental commons which is under threat from dangerous carbon emissions. The education commons, on the other hand, is under threat from the exclusion of students of difference, such as the poor, those with a physical or hidden disability, and others whose cultural or behavioural practices assign them to separate and opportunity-lacking schooling.

A refusal to enrol such children in schools is in effect an alienation of the commons. Public funding is used for the benefit of a few, while the high social costs of the marginalisation and future unemployability of the excluded students are borne in common. Where this occurs public resources ought properly to be denied to such school providers, who would be forced to raise their own private resources to support their position of advantage.

A scheme should be introduced in which schools that go out of their way to enrol the marginalised earn funding credits, similar to carbon credits, regardless of their public or private status.

This solution is similar to but better than Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop’s proposal to offer vouchers to schools prepared to enrol students of difference. Vouchers, while a welcome proposal, simply follow market trends and will not provide the high infrastructure costs required to assist schools to become inclusive.

An even better idea would be to accord full funding to those non-government schools prepared to share with state schools the challenge of enrolling and educating all children, regardless of ability or temperament. In this way we would allow both the public and private school sectors to fully contribute to the Australian common good.


Endnotes

[1] Author’s postdoctoral research (The University of Queensland, 2001)

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