Public school funding aims for every student to have the same opportunities. But a new study shows parents contributions still perpetuate inequality in government schools.
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More advantaged public secondary schools across Australia generate nearly six times the amount of funding contributions from parents than less advantaged schools receive.
Our study, published in The Australian Educational Researcher journal, examined private levels of funding in public secondary schools.
We found annual parent contributions per school were on average A$352,956 in schools serving the most disadvantaged students. Schools serving the most advantaged students generated an average A$1,584,974 from parents per year.
Parent contributions in our study included funding for charges such as essential learning items, excursions and specialist programs. They did not include fundraising.
Do parent contributions match status?
This is the first comprehensive study that has examined inequalities in school funding as exclusively generated by parents in public secondary schools.
We examined parent monetary contributions for 150 public secondary schools in Melbourne and Geelong. We wanted to know whether parent contributions were related to school socioeconomic status.
We used the parent fees, charges and contributions reported on the MySchool website from 2013-2016. MySchool defines “fees, charges and parent contributions” as “income received from parents for the delivery of education services to students”.
The types of voluntary financial contributions parents can make to public schools differ across states. Victorian legislation mandates the “standard curriculum program” must be provided free of charge.
But parents are required to pay for what the school categorises as “essential student learning items” and there is little oversight in how schools determine what fits this category.
So it varies widely. It could be textbooks, uniforms, stationery or mandatory excursions. It can encompass any additional materials the school considers “essential” for a learning task.
Schools can also request parent payments for “optional items” offered in addition to the standard curriculum. These include extracurricular programs, music tuition, excursions and camps, as well as “voluntary financial contributions”, which are typically delegated for a special initiative such as a building fund.
We compared the parent contributions to the School Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) – a measure that allows a comparison of the levels of educational advantage or disadvantage students bring to their academic studies.
Our study used ICSEA as a proxy for school socioeconomic status. The ICSEA includes parent occupation and parent education, school remoteness and the percentage of Indigenous student enrolment.
We calculated the per student amount averaged over four years for each school, the per school amount averaged over four years, and the total amount per school, summed over four years.
We then compared this to student enrolment in each school. This enabled us to comprehensively examine the reported differences and gaps, and how these correlate with school advantage or disadvantage across different metrics.
Public schools that serve more advantaged student cohorts generated, on average, 5.8 times greater levels of income, in comparison to schools that serve disadvantaged student cohorts.
The difference was greater when comparing per school parent contributions, in comparison to per student. This is because schools that serve more advantaged student cohorts tend to be larger.
The median per student parent contribution in the most advantaged schools is more than four times greater (A$1,399) than for the most disadvantaged schools (A$335).
Annual funding per school, when averaged over the four years, was A$352,956 for schools serving the most disadvantaged students. Schools serving the most advantaged students generated an average A$1,584,974.
The majority of schools we examined were not socially integrated, meaning they enrolled mostly students from advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds, but not both. Only one-quarter of schools enrolled students from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Why this matters
Parent-generated funding disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are a form of educational inequality associated with socially segregated schooling.
It’s relatively unsurprising schools with more advantaged students report higher annual contributions from parents. But it’s concerning these amounts differ so substantially between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.
These disparities can further fuel school segregation which is already higher in Australia than in most other countries in the OECD.
The OECD argues reducing school segregation is one of the best ways to reduce achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and improve educational effectiveness more generally.
Policymakers should consider measures to reduce disparities between schools as part of a larger effort to improve educational equity and effectiveness.
Governments could create additional funding schemes for disadvantaged schools to support special initiatives and programs that in other schools would typically be subsidised by parent contributions.
Alternatively, governments could limit the amount of money schools can ask or expect parents to pay.
Whatever the approach, parent contributions need to be monitored.
Emma Rowe is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University and Laura Perry is an associate professor at Murdoch University.