[Following is an interview with Angelo Gavrielatos, deputy president of the Australian Education Union. Gavrielatos was recently in the United States to meet with union leaders. Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools interviewed him on conservative education policies in Australia. They explored the issue of growing government funding for private schools. -- the editors]
RS: How extensive is government funding of private schools in Australia?
Gavrielatos: In Australia, the states and territories are primarily responsible for education, with the federal Commonwealth government providing important supplementary dollars. The federal government under Prime Minister John Howard has been the main cheerleader for private schools.
Support has increased so dramatically that in the federal government’s school funding plans for 2005Ã¢€"08, private schools will receive more money than public schools — even though roughly two-thirds of all children are in public schools.
The government funding is not through vouchers, in the way that term is used in the United States, even though the end result is the same. We have direct government funding of private schools based on the number of their pupils.
RS: How did government aid to private schools begin?
Gavrielatos: It started in the 1960s as the result of a campaign by the Catholic schools, which account for the largest percentage of private schools in Australia. The Catholics threatened to close down their schools in a country town west of Sydney, in essence blackmailing the government by saying they would bring down the entire education system because the public schools could not have immediately coped with the extra children.
As a result of that campaign, the government started funding private schools, first through monies targeted for science and libraries. Year by year, the funding increased to the point where the federal government now gives what we call recurrent funding — or in your terms, ongoing per-pupil funding — to the private schools. What started as a campaign allegedly based on need has become a program where private schools feel they are automatically entitled to public funds. Between 2005 and 2008, the federal government will give 75 percent of recurrent education funding to private schools.
RS: Has the private system grown as a result of government funding?
Gavrielatos: Thirty years ago, only 15 percent of students were in private schools. That figure has more than doubled, and nationwide approximately 32 percent of students are now in nongovernment schools. There is absolutely no doubt that the main result of this government funding has been to hasten the conservative dream of funneling more and more students into private schools. And on the public’s purse — or as you would say, the public’s dime.
RS: If these private schools are doing a good job, don’t they deserve government support?
Gavrielatos: Yes, that’s the rhetoric, but the reality has been a shift of money and students to these private schools without any true accountability or commitment to serve all students, especially indigenous students, those with special needs, or poorer students.
The public schools have suffered as a result. Yes, there are problems in public schools, and this is true throughout the world. But we are defending the goal of a public system of the highest quality. Governments that fail to embrace that goal are saying they are either unwilling or unable to provide a public school system of the highest degree possible.
Our view is clear: The role of government is to provide for a sound system of public schools that are free, secular, and universally accessible to all.
RS: Do private schools serve students with special needs?
Gavrielatos: Theoretically, private schools have an obligation to serve special needs students, but the proof is in the pudding. More than 80 percent of the special ed students are in public schools, which is a much higher percentage than the overall percentage of students in public schools. This suggests to me that private schools are encouraging parents and special needs students not to enroll in their schools. It’s the same with indigenous students, the overwhelming majority of whom are in public schools. Finally, even though private schools have expanded dramatically, they still don’t exist in anywhere near the same numbers in isolated, rural settings, where schools are more expensive to run.
RS: Do the private schools charge tuition even though they receive government funding?
Gavrielatos: Absolutely. One of their arguments in the past was that they needed government funding in part to make the schools accessible to working mums and dads. But that hasn’t happened. Studies show that about 78 percent of low-income students are in public schools, while less than half of all high-income students attend public schools. So instead of making private schools more accessible, the government funding has helped make them more elitist.
What’s more, tuition has risen exponentially at many private schools, especially the more privileged ones. The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that tuition fees in some private schools in Australia will reach $20,000 next year. That’s obscene.
RS: Do private schools receiving government funds have to disclose their finances?
Gavrielatos: No, and that’s a huge problem. We do not believe that the private schools should receive any public funds; the government’s role is to fund the best public system possible. That being said, there needs to be more accountability from the private schools.
RS: It sounds like Australia is about 25 years ahead of the education privatization movement in the United States.
Gavrielatos: Unfortunately, this is an area where Australia is on the cutting edge.
RS: What are the key lessons from Australia for the United States?
Gavrielatos: One must constantly ask the question: What kind of society do we want to be in 40 years time? Do we want to be characterized as socially cohesive, tolerant, and democratic? Or as sectarian, divisive, and separatist?
In my view, our private schools are examples of state-sponsored segregation and state-sponsored separatism. We are seeing in these private schools the increasing segregation by race, ethnicity, class, and religion. Matters have gotten so crazy that the latest proposal from the federal government is for funding to place chaplains in all schools.
It was interesting that after the London bombings a year or so ago, when the media talked about "home-grown" terrorists, Australians started asking, "Why is the government funding Muslim schools?" We were drawn into that debate. And we noted that you can’t distinguish between which branch of religion the government funds. You can’t distinguish on the basis of a Muslim school versus a Catholic school versus a Greek Orthodox school. Because at that point you are heading down the path of serious religious prejudice.
The only valid answer lies in government funding limited to public schools.
RS: How do you answer accusations that the unions defend incompetent teachers and thus bring down academic standards in public schools?
Gavrielatos: In order for conservatives to further their political objective of shifting money into private schools, they have been attempting to create a crisis of confidence in public education. This campaign is absolutely deliberate.
How do you create a crisis of confidence in public education? First, you suggest that the quality of education is inferior — and you do so without any studies or statistics. And then you say that this inferior education is because the unions are defending incompetent teachers. It’s always an uphill battle to counter that assertion because it isn’t true. How do you combat a lie? Where do you begin?
In my home state, New South Wales, as part of our collective agreement with the state government there are procedures for dealing with teachers whose competencies are cause for concern. This procedure could be triggered by a number of factors: parent complaints, student complaints, concern from fellow teachers, or perhaps the principal. Under the contract’s procedures, such a teacher is assessed for 10 weeks, by the principal and/or assistant principals or those in positions of similar responsibility. They observe the teacher and look at his or her lessons, curriculum, and classroom practice. If after 10 weeks the teacher’s performance is deemed to have improved, then all ends satisfactorily. If after 10 weeks the performance is still unsatisfactory, the teacher may be let go.
People say we are defending incompetent teachers. No, we are protecting due process.
RS: Having shifted significant dollars into private schools, what’s next on the conservative agenda in Australia?
Gavrielatos: Their new aim is to control what’s taught by imposing what they call "a common national curriculum." Conservatives recently started a campaign asserting that the current curriculum, which is formed primarily at the state level, has been hijacked by left-wing ideologues. In early October, our education minister went so far as to charge that current curriculum themes are coming "straight from Chairman Mao."
The conservatives also say that standards are dropping, that we are brainwashing students because we are teaching kids critical analytical skills. With respect to history, they say that history is no longer being taught in a narrative, structured way, and that history is being questioned. Now, as you know, history is contestable, subject to interpretation. But not in the eyes of the conservatives. They want an "official" history. And when you talk about an "official" history, to me that conjures up images of totalitarianism and fascism.
RS: Are there any particular countries or struggles that give you hope?
Gavrielatos: Most certainly. Look at South America. There is a level of consciousness and political mobilization that we would not have predicted 10 years ago, especially in terms of elected governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile.
And in Australia, I detect a sense that people feel the government has gone too far. In the last 10 years, our domestic and international policies have been guided by the politics of fear, deception, xenophobia, and racism. The war on Iraq, in which our Howard government has been a shrub to your Bush, is one example. And I think Australians are saying that maybe the government has gone too far. I am not talking about radicals or progressives. I am talking about your average person. And that also gives me hope.
RS: Speaking of Iraq, the Australian Education Union has been quite outspoken in criticizing the Howard government for supporting Bush’s war. Has that created political problems for the union?
Gavrielatos: We consider the actions of our government to have diminished us as a nation in the eyes of the international community. So we will continue to be the first to criticize its politics of fear and xenophobia — and we will do so loudly and proudly.