Minister for Education Christopher Pyne waits to speak while the state ministers hold a press conference in Sydney.

"Pyne's risky move towards sectarian warfare demands a solid justification." Photo: AAP

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is not alone in finding it hard to make sense of what his federal counterpart, Christopher Pyne, has up his sleeve for the funding of schools beyond next year.

For example, what does Pyne mean by a ''flatter'' schools funding formula? We can assume he does not mean to flatten it upwards, raising the resource levels of all schools to the standards now enjoyed by the privileged few. But if ''flatter'' means a smaller piece of the funding pie for disadvantaged schools, with any increases spread more thinly, this will make a mockery of the Gonski review principles enshrined in the Australian Education Act 2013.

Most of the students whose educational outcomes are put at risk by family and community poverty, lack of fluency in English, irregular school attendance, transience or remoteness depend on the public education system for their chance of school success, not to mention a rewarding life.

How can Pyne justify any move by the Commonwealth to shift the funding balance away from, instead of towards, these schools? Will he repeal the act? Or just destroy its integrity?

Pyne has also argued that ''funding is not the real issue''. Who has ever asserted that funding of itself determines the quality of schooling? Funding is a necessary but not sufficient condition for quality schooling.

Funding is the issue right now. The Gonski review was long overdue. Under successive federal governments, this country had evolved funding arrangements without much educational rationale.

To illustrate the point that ''funding is not the issue'', Pyne has advanced the claim that Catholic schools operate at lower resource levels than public schools but achieve higher results. What research-based evidence does he have for these claims? Research conducted for the Gonski review does not support this. It identified the need to increase funding to the public system.

Pyne's risky move towards sectarian warfare demands a solid justification.

The Gonski report gave Australians a glimpse of a school funding arrangement that provided a rational link between the work we expect our schools to do and the resources we are prepared to invest in them. It positioned the Commonwealth as a reliable partner in a mature relationship with states in funding public as well as non-government schools.

Pyne insists the Abbott government will honour its promise to provide the same funding ''envelope'' as the former Labor government budgeted for. He claims that this ''envelope'' had been cut by $1.2 billion over four years owing to Labor's failure to reach agreements with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Leaving aside that this amount is not consistent with Treasury's pre-election fiscal outlook statement, it is bizarre that the choices exercised by those three governments should penalise government school students in the remaining states and the ACT.

Pyne's announcements would mean federal funding for government schools in 2016-17 would increase by about $1.5 billion compared with 2011-12, a reduction of $0.5 billion compared with last year's budget projections for 2016-17. Federal funding for non-government schools is projected to increase by almost $3 billion over the same period.

This outcome, for which there is no educational rationale, would contradict the findings of the Gonski report. It would mean the Coalition government was ''blind'' to the needs of one sector only - public schools, which serve about two-thirds of the school population.

Pyne says he will ''go back to the drawing board''. What he needs is to go back to is the principle spelt out in the act that the quality of students' education should not be limited by where they live, family income, the schools they attend, or their personal circumstances.

Does the Coalition support that principle - or not?

Jim McMorrow is a former NSW deputy director-general of education and training and a member of the Need to Succeed Alliance.