Back to schools

Schools policy is back on the election agenda, writes CPD Fellow Ben Eltham. But will it lead to substantial reform?

Published on Inside Story on 23 July 2010.

Six years after many in the Labor Party blamed Mark Latham’s schools policy for the loss of crucial Sydney seats in the 2004 election, schools are back as an election issue. Over the past week both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have promised parents tax breaks for education expenses. Labor’s policy was relatively modest, allowing parents to claim for school uniforms on top of their current allowances for things like laptops and schoolbooks. The Coalition’s announcement was more generous, allowing parents to claim for government and private school fees.

It is the tax break for private school fees that has generated much of the debate. Understandably, independent and religious schools welcomed the announcement. Public education advocates were aghast, seeing Abbott’s policy as the beginning of a new Coalition attempt to privatise education or, even worse, as an attempt to introduce a type of voucher system for the public funding of schools. Labor ministers, including Wayne Swan and Simon Crean, and independent analysts say that Abbott’s tax break could prove very expensive as increasing numbers of parents become aware of it and claim accordingly. This won’t worry the opposition leader, who has shown a Howard-esque liking for policies that channel public subsidies to citizens and private providers in spheres such as health insurance and paid parental leave. Meanwhile, conservative education commentator Kevin Donnelly has claimed that Labor will renege on its pledges to maintain support for private schools. Donnelly wants more Commonwealth funding for these schools, not less.

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