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What should the Greens do with Gonski 2.0?

When Sarah Hanson-Young confirmed last week that the Greens were willing to negotiate with the federal government to pass a new school-funding package, the reaction was rapid and stinging.

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek declared that "teachers and parents will never forgive the Greens for selling out public school kids". The I Give a Gonski campaign was no less critical: "We never thought we would see the day this would happen." The Greens' position was "unbelievable" ACTU secretary Sally McManus declared. Even Hanson-Young's Greens colleague, Lee Rhiannon, joined in, enthusiastically retweeting criticisms directed at her own party.

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The Gonski sell

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By Saturday, Hanson-Young had issued a clarifying statement. The Greens had not yet made a decision on Gonski 2.0, they reiterated their call for a Senate inquiry, and they would reserve their decision until after they considered the evidence presented to the inquiry.

Are the critics right to say the Greens shouldn't entertain doing a deal with the government? No, I don't think they are. Are there flaws in the latest Gonski that could jeopardise the principle of needs-based funding it purportedly advances? Yes, there are.

The first problem is that the journey towards needs-based funding set out by Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham is excruciatingly slow. As the Australian Education Union's Victorian president, Meredith Peace, pointed out: "a student in year 4 today will have left school by the time this funding is delivered". Instead of the nearly $4 billion of extra funding that was originally scheduled to arrive in years five and six of the Gonski agreements (2018 and 2019), the Turnbull government has committed to $2 billion over four years. Most of the funding growth is delayed until beyond the forward estimates.

The government's obvious response is that funding will grow: in real terms, and faster than it promised at the last election. That's true. But it's also true that the government has signed up to be judged by a different standard. In accepting the Gonski review's fundamental findings, it accepted that funding should be provided according to student need – and, on that criteria, many young Australians don't receive appropriate educational resourcing. The onus on a government that accepts this reality is to act with all speed to change it.

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We've been here before. The year 4 student of today wasn't even in preschool when David Gonski presented his report to the Gillard government in November 2011. We've now reached the point when the big bucks were supposed to arrive, and they've been deferred again. If recent events have confirmed that a week is a long time in the politics of school funding, circumspection about 10-year timelines is in order. Things change, including governments.

What the Greens' critics don't seem to have noticed, though, is that the minor party has clearly recognised the imperative of locking in needs-based funding increases as quickly as possible. In the same comments in which she indicated a willingness to negotiate with the government, Hanson-Young signalled that getting more money, sooner, to disadvantaged students would be a priority.

The next problem with Gonski 2.0 is probably more profound, and definitely more complicated. If you're a disadvantaged young Australian, you generally (though not always) attend a public school. The federal government is committing to provide just 20 per cent of the funding entitlement for public school students. For the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged Australian schoolchildren, what the Commonwealth does is important, but not nearly as important as what state and territory governments do.

To deliver needs-based funding, governments must work in concert. Julia Gillard recognised this. She didn't just deliver more Commonwealth dollars to kids facing the highest hurdles; she used the injection of federal funds to elicit funding increases from the states and territories. This approach had varied success but Gonski 1.0 included a plausible story about how governments would work together to deliver needs-based funding.

Turnbull's version of Gonski has jettisoned agreements with the states and territories, and the concept of an agreed approach. There is no guarantee that states and territories will fund 80 per cent of the schooling resource standard for public school students (or 20 per cent of total government funding for students at non-government schools).

While the Greens may be hard-pressed to address this problem directly from the Senate crossbench, they can push for the national schools resourcing body recommended in the original Gonski review. A needs-based funding model places a lot of weight on defining and measuring need accurately. If the task is tackled with appropriate expertise and independence, it will help pressure governments to cough up.

The Greens should seek more money sooner, buy-in from the states, and an independent body to oversee funding.

So Hanson-Young and the Greens are right to contemplate voting for an amended Gonski 2.0. They should seek more money sooner, greater guarantees of getting the requisite buy-in from the states, and an independent body that drives understanding of the resourcing that students need to succeed.

They could have considerable leverage. The school funding legislation is at the heart of the Turnbull government's shift to the centre, and of the Prime Minister's hope of reminding voters why they once thought he'd do a better job than Tony Abbott. The vehemence of Labor's opposition strongly suggests that it senses this, too.

But what if the Greens have only limited or partial success? Should the Greens really, as Bill Shorten insists, "Just. Say. No." to Gonski 2.0? In the final assessment, the ambition of the latest version of Gonski, flaws and all, matters. It offers the opportunity to elevate needs-based funding to the level of Medicare, where any deviation from the national consensus is quickly corrected and ends up costing the Coalition. If Labor won't seize the opportunity, the Greens should.

Tom Greenwell is a Canberra-based teacher and writer. A longer version of this article appears in Inside Story.