CARDINAL George Pell’s gratitude to both sides of politics could easily have been overlooked the day Prime Minister John Howard announced a $362 million funding boost for Australia’s Catholic schools from 2005-08.
All the attention was on Cardinal Pell’s public show of gratitude to Mr Howard when they appeared together at the funding announcement at a Sydney Catholic school on February 29.
Among Cardinal Pell’s words of appreciation, there was a line that indicated the Church’s gratitude to both sides of politics, not just the ones who happen to be in power at the moment.
‘The support of the major political parties for funding for non-government schools is something that I deeply appreciate,’ he said.
It could have been an acknowledgment that the Church’s battle for government funding in Australia has been a long and difficult one, and that politicians of every brand have sat across the table as Church leaders argued their case.
And it could have been acknowledging the players in negotiations still to come.
‘The primary responsibility for educating children lies with parents,’ Cardinal Pell said.
‘Governments recognise this by supporting the right of parents to choose how their children are educated, and by recognising that parents are entitled to this support by virtue of the taxes they pay.’
But governments have not always accepted that, and even today there is evidence some governments are more willing than others in this regard, especially at state level.
Victorian Catholic Education Commission executive director Susan Pascoe will vouch for that as she lobbies hard to persuade the Victorian Government to match other states with funding levels.
Catholic schools in Victoria receive only 16 per cent of their funding from the State Government while Catholic schools in NSW receive 25 per cent of their funding from their State Government and Queensland’s receive 21 per cent.
That lack of funding is taking its toll, with fees in Victorian Catholic schools having to be increased by 95 per cent in the past decade to make up for the shortfall.
A study by Monash University and the Australian Council for Education Research showed that, as a result, low income families were struggling to afford a Catholic education for their children, and that one in four parents of children in Year 6 at Victoria’s Catholic schools were considering public high schools as an option.
Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Joe McCorley said that, even though the federal funding boost was welcomed, Catholic schools would still operate on significantly less government funding than state schools.
In the light of history, any gains for an Australian Catholic education tradition that spans almost 180 years would be considered to be hard earned.
Catholic schools had received some government help until the Education Acts of the 1870s and 1880s, when funding ceased, and education became free, secular and compulsory.
Priests, religious and lay people then were tenacious in ensuring Catholic education continued without government help. Large numbers of religious were needed as teachers to make this possible.
Catholic school enrolments increased rapidly after World War II, and from the 1960s the number of religious started to decline, and gradually fewer were available to work in the classroom.
So, as the need for lay staff increased and providing education became more costly, securing government assistance became more necessary, and the community and governments recognised the wisdom of providing that help.
The Catholic education sector had become too large for government to ignore, and politicians became more acutely aware of the size of the burden the Catholic system was shouldering.
These days, discussions centre on maintaining an adequate level of funding and the methods of allocating the funds.
Catholic authorities are at pains to avoid an ‘us and them’ situation in debate about funding for government and non-government schools.
This was highlighted in a 2001 paper by Queensland Catholic Education Commission (QCEC) on education funding.
‘It has always been the position of Catholic school authorities, and particularly of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, that funding provided to support the education of children in Catholic schools should not be provided at the expense of those in state schools,’ the paper said.
‘Quite simply, we have consistently argued that we are seeking fair treatment for all Queensland children.’
The QCEC paper also held an indication of the level of confidence and optimism that has developed within the sector.
‘We maintained our nerve, our resolve and our commitment throughout 100 years of financial drought, resource inadequacy, periodic vitriolic attack, and occasional flagging of internal confidence,’ the paper said.
‘However difficult the funding climate may currently seem and the future may present as being, we are much better equipped than ever before to confront the challenges and overcome the obstacles.’
With Queensland Catholic schools to receive an extra $60 million in funding during 2005-08, authorities are in the process of deciding how the funds will be distributed.