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Learning a thing or two from inter-governmental co-operation


Tingnan Li

By

September 27th, 2019


In times when inter-governmental cooperation seems at worst laughable (and at best naively optimistic), a longstanding example of its triumphs (and challenges) exists in the federal and state sharing of education policy. Tingnan Li investigates this unassuming system.


One could be forgiven for thinking that in such politically fraught times, governmental cooperation is a relic of the past. A romantic notion with no place in these polarising times. Yet, intergovernmental cooperation, between state (and territory) governments and their federal counterpart, forms one of the most consistent systems that keep public (and private) sectors funded and operating.

Education policy is but one policy field that exists in this intriguing intersection between federal and state (and territory) governed policy. How this interesting circumstance has come about stems from the State (and Territory) and Federal split of legislative power.

Federal funding is no mere drop in the ocean

Strictly speaking, the constitution assigns responsibility over delivery of education and pre-school programs to the States and Territories.[i] How then, you may ask, does the Federal government represent 13.8% of total public funding for public schools?[ii] For starters, section 22A of the Australian Education Act 2013 (Cth) dictates that a state (or territory) must meet or exceed its funding requirements for the public and private sector as a prerequisite before receiving federal funding. At its core, though the states and territories maintain overarching authority over their respective local education policies, the federal government is able to lend a hand in funding and national initiatives through a system of agreements with the State and Territory governments (known as the Council of Australian Governments system).

This Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the self-proclaimed “peak intergovernmental forum in Australia”[iii], includes the Prime Minister, First Ministers of the states and territories as well as the President of the Local Government Association. The COAG Council on Federal Financial Relations oversees federal funding of state and territory policies. This council comprises of the federal Commonwealth treasurer as well as the state and territory treasurers and is responsible for the financial grants which then contribute to sectors or projects such as education and health services (which fall under individual state or territory legislative jurisdiction).

The federal purse strings have certainly been loosened when it comes to education policy, with Commonwealth funding markedly increasing (at a rate far exceeding its state and territory counterparts), and remaining the majority public funder for Catholic and private sectors. Though rooted in historical justifications (the federal government stepped in to support the catholic sector in the wake of the post-war baby boom and alleviate some of the pressure on the public sector) this substantial variation from their contributions to the public sector often elicits a raised eyebrow or two.

As it stands, the states and territories are the majority public funders of government schools (though the federal government contribution shares have been steadily increasing), reflecting their overarching power over deciding their education policy.[iv] That being said, statistics indicate that growth in the federal Commonwealth share in education funding far exceeds that of its state and territory counterparts.

The federal government certainly has no qualms with coughing up the dough when it comes to funding education, but how might these two branches co-exist when perfect harmony is not possible?

The states and territories still get the last word

Only late last year, the Council on Federal Financial Relations signed the National School Reform Agreement[v] (which will operate from 2019 to 2023) and builds upon existing national and local level education initiatives in operation in the respective states and territories. The agreement includes National Policy Initiatives (such as ‘Reviewing senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training’ and ‘Strengthening the initial teacher education accreditation system’ by introducing a rigorous final-year teaching performance assessment for teaching students prior to graduation)[vi].

Importantly, the agreement also acknowledges State-specific reform initiatives, that is, policies specific to, and implemented by, the respective state or territory, and over which the Education Council has no oversight (the Education Council was established under the COAG’s authority and includes State, Territory, Australian Government Ministers with portfolio responsibility for school education, early childhood and higher education, and nominated by their respective First Ministers). In doing so, the agreement recognises the ultimate authority of the states and territories over their respective local education policies and that specifics of these agreements between the federal government and the respective individual states or territories are found in specific bilateral agreements. For instance, the 2019 ‘National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education’ has varying ‘Implementation Plans’ tailored to each state or territory’s needs.[vii]

The distribution of power and funding between the state and federal branches may on paper appear like an impressively slick operation, however challenges nonetheless exist.

The challenges of inter-governmental cooperation

Some challenges in these bilateral arrangements can be observed in specific policies such as early childhood education benefits.

For instance, though the federal ‘Child Care Subsidy’[viii] and the Victorian ‘Early Start Kindergarten’[ix] program stem from similar policy rationales in principle, they also possess clear differences. Whilst both are paid directly to the kindergarten or child care provider on the behalf of the parent or carer to lower costs, the two policies differ in focus and eligibility. The federal policy has immunisation requirements attached and covers a range of childcare services (including Family Day Care, Outside School Hours Care, Home care, and Centre Based Day Care) whereas the Victorian policy only covers approved kindergarten programs and requires the parent to hold a Commonwealth Health Care Card, Pension Concession Care, Department of Veterans Affairs Card or Refugee or Asylum Seeker visa. Having two policies operate in parallel complicate the system despite the advantage of making sure that funding is well-targeted to those who most need it.  

The somewhat awkward interaction between the two policies also manifests itself in the inability to claim both benefits at the same time (unless the child identifies and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or is identified on their birth certificate as being a multiple birth child). This disconnect arguably highlights the inherent challenges for state and federal government interaction in these areas of shared power.

The interaction of states and federal government in this space has historically facilitated the reliable operation of nationwide education systems. Though challenges still exist, the system’s triumphs are those that can be shared by policymakers and the general populace.


[i] Constitution (Cth), s51

[ii] Department of Education. (2019). How are schools funded in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.au/how-are-schools-funded-australia

[iii] The Council of Australian Governments. About COAG. Retrieved September, 2019, from https://www.coag.gov.au/about-coag

[iv] Department of Education. (2019). How are schools funded in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.education.gov.au/how-are-schools-funded-australia

[v] Council of Australian Governments. (2013). National School Reform Agreement. Retrieved from http://www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/national_agreements/national_school_reform_agreement_8.pdf

[vi] Council of Australian Governments. (2013). National School Reform Agreement. Retrieved from http://www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/national_agreements/national_school_reform_agreement_8.pdf (page 22)

[vii] Council on Federal and Financial Relations. (2018). National Partnerships – Education. Retrieved September, 2019 from  http://www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/npa/education.aspx

[viii] Department of Human Services. (2019, September 24). Child Care Subsidy. Retrieved September 26, 2019 from  https://www.humanservices.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/child-care-subsidy

[ix] Victoria State Government. (2019, September 10). Types of kindergarten programs. Retrieved September 26, 2019 from  https://www.education.vic.gov.au/parents/child-care-kindergarten/Pages/kindergarten-programs.aspx#link30

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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