There are few parts of society that are more highly regulated and more heavily scrutinised than our schools. Care and protection of children is involved, so that regulation and scrutiny is appropriate.
School education in Australia has previously been defined as compulsory, secular and free. Despite this, different beliefs and their legitimate expression have now been a reality in Australian schools since their inception.
More than $50bn is spent on Australian schools annually for the learning, wellbeing and future of almost 4 million young Australians.
Education authorities in each state and territory have responsibility for ensuring schools comply with strict laws and regulations. Schools can only be registered and operate as schools if they meet stringent standards. A safe environment for children, a quality curriculum and qualified teachers, are among the many requirements.
Once registered, schools can access government funding based on the needs of the students enrolled.
Government funding has been available to students in all Australian schools for 50 years.
Religious beliefs of parents and students are irrelevant to school funding. This is true for Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Anglican schools, Muslim schools and any other faith-based school. It should not matter if schools happen to be affiliated with the Church of Scientology, the Exclusive Brethren, the Steiner philosophy or the left-handed Calathumpians for that matter.
The government funding for some schools has, however, been questioned. Attempts to smear faith-based schools damage the great partnership that Australian education represents.
We have just seen an election in which education was cited in exit polls as the second-most important issue for voters.
In 2014, governments spent $41bn on school education across all sectors. Students in government schools received, on average, $2,000 more in funding from Commonwealth and state governments than students in Catholic schools. The average difference was about $4,000 for students in independent schools.
In the recent critiques of government funding for the Athena School in Newtown
or the MET School
, it was explained that they receive more funding per student than some nearby government schools.
On the information publicly available, including the relative advantage or disadvantage of student populations, many non-government schools legitimately receive substantial funding and sometimes more than some government schools.
Students at Newtown Public School are more advantaged than students at Athena School, based on publicly available information. Yet the Athena students receive $2,300 less in government funding. Despite having students with greater learning needs, and receiving 25% less in government funding, some portray that level of funding as unjust.
But if the Athena School were to be closed, it would cost governments many thousands more each year to educate those students in a government school.
School funding is as complex as the diverse needs of schools and students. The vast amounts of data available on schools and the arcane practices of school funding can tell many diverse and rich stories.
In some instances, there are non-government schools that receive higher levels of government funding than some government schools; this in no way implies any injustice. Some public schools in highly affluent areas receive far higher levels of government funding than government schools in low-SES areas.
Is there an injustice there?
Catholic schools are accustomed to the sort of scrutiny Athena and MET have received. There are many orchestrated attempts to take away the fundamental right to school choice that hundreds of thousands of parents currently exercise and value.
But attacks on faith-based schools are an affront to all non-government schools and all parents who value choice. They are an affront to education more broadly.
Significant energy is expended in trying to create division in Australia's education system. League tables are drawn up to compare schools. Schools' financial information is used to question the justice of government funding for the 1.3 million students in non-government schools.
If Australians truly value the education system in this country and want to see it continue to improve, they should ignore this and similarly narrow, cherry-picked funding analysis.
Many may question whether this masks an attempt to revive sectarian bigotry that we all hoped had been confined to our history.
Ross Fox is executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission.
*This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald