Funding for Catholic schools

NCEC Fnding Brochure Australia's Catholic schools are a national asset. As such, fair and equitable funding is the essential foundation for all Australian schools, including Catholic schools.

Read the National Catholic Education Commission's (NCEC) document Funding Principles for Catholic Schools.

 

Funding of Catholic Schools: An Historical Overview

For as long as anyone cares to remember, Catholic education has been mired in debates over the allocation of resources, though the provision of stable funding for Catholic schools since the 1970s has enabled Catholic schools to move beyond considerations of survival to issues of quality provision.

 

Victoria was the first colony to introduce its Education Act in 1872. Education was to be 'free, compulsory and secular' and the limited funding available for denominational schools was abolished. Other colonies followed in quick succession.

The hierarchy of the Catholic church was committed to schooling which integrated religious and general education. This position left them with little choice but to establish their own schools. The reliance on religious orders and the contributions of parishioners were sufficient to maintain basic provision in Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, population increases due to the post-World War II baby boom and the high number of Catholics amongst immigrants put the system under severe strain. While government schools were faced with similar enrolment pressures, the situation in Catholic schools was exacerbated by growing staff shortages, large class sizes, insufficient and often inadequate buildings, and the low salaries of lay staff.

Catholic system was at breaking point and hard decisions had to be taken. The issue of State Aid was back on the agenda, bringing with it much strongly contested public and political positioning.

For the year 1964-65 and subsequent years, Liberal Prime Minister Menzies offered Commonwealth scholarships for students in government and non-government schools and made grants to all secondary schools for the building of science blocks. This was followed by secondary schools grants for the building of libraries. By the mid-1960s individual state governments were offering modest direct grants to Catholic schools.

The 1972 election of the Whitlam Government saw the establishment of the Karmel Committee to report on the educational needs of all Australian schools. The parlous state of Catholic schools was described as a 'national disgrace' in its 1973 report. The Karmel Report recommended a common resource standard for all schools and the establishment of a General Recurrent Grants scheme which was weighted in favour of need and equality. The outcome was a desperately needed injection of funds to all schools and to Catholic schools in particular, as well as the promise of funding stability. The funding saved parishes and schools from serious financial trouble and allowed schools to meet the expanding needs of its communities with relative security and confidence.

Not all were happy with this funding arrangement and they took their grievance to the High Court. The Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) case in 1980 occupied the legal system for the best part of the year. It reflected the residual sectarianism in Australian society. The DOGS case challenged the validity of several of the statutes enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. The High Court by a majority dismissed the suit of the plaintiffs. The constitutional validity of the Commonwealth's funding of Catholic schools was reaffirmed.

In recent decades Catholic and Independent schools have benefited from the ongoing commitment of the major political parties to partially resourcing a 'dual' (government and non-government) system of education. However, despite significant progress in partnership with Commonwealth and State governments regarding a fair share of public funding (rather than 'state aid'), Catholic education's public funding base requires clarity and definition.

Of the range of issues for settlement between Commonwealth and State governments, one is the basis on which recurrent funds are allocated. Socio-economic models have informed needs-based funding approaches in the past, however, there is disquiet regarding current approaches both at federal and state levels. Also critical for the Catholic sector's long-term growth and certainty is a greater degree of community and government consensus on appropriate levels of capital funding from the public purse, and on appropriate levels of private fees/contributions. Catholic education authorities are concerned that all Catholics have a choice of school, and that this choice is a real one which is not dictated by the state of a family's economics.

Internationally there exists a variety of funding and regulatory arrangements for Catholic schools, often shaped by constitutional and historical factors. In some countries such as New Zealand, Belgium and Canada, Catholic schools have been integrated fully into the government school system and have for the most part successfully retained their identity. By and large, however, the position that Catholic education currently holds in Australia with regard to autonomy, funding, regulation and governance is viewed both here and internationally as being highly preferred and privileged.