Before I had kids, I'd naively assumed most public schools would be pretty much the same. Clearly private schools were an elite league, with their performing arts centres and rustic rural campuses. But equal access to a free education was a democratic right.
I was wrong, of course. For there's a growing class divide within the state system and it's to do with a school having lots of educated, middle-class parents with spare cash.
Parental fundraising might pay for a resurfaced basketball court or a new playground or tree plantings. Of course, those who can afford to help want to. Why wouldn't we? But the amounts raised can be startling. I thought we'd done well making $20,000 from our school fete. Until a friend said her school's made $70,000.
Then there are the voluntary fees and charges levied by government schools. Parents are being asked to pay for things such as IT maintenance, a first-aid nurse, print cartridges, learning materials and grounds' upkeep, according to a recent Auditor-General's report that examined these extra costs. One school's "student resource charge" paid for airconditioning, regular contract cleaning and student wellbeing programs. Other fees – for trips or music lessons – may effectively exclude poorer families.
Victorian principals told the Auditor-General how they'd cut costs to stretch their budgets. One principal now mows the lawns and cleans windows himself after hours. Another school does its own maintenance – including unblocking toilets.
The My School website lists the amount of money per state student that is obtained through voluntary fees, charges and other parent contributions. At Albert Park College, in a wealthy bayside suburb, the figure is $2456 per student. At Werribee Secondary College, it's $807.
Clearly, government funding is woefully inadequate. So parent communities plug the gaps. But if you're working two low-paid jobs or unemployed or can barely read you're unlikely to have the money to pay voluntary levies or the time or confidence to fundraise at your kids' school.
From my experience, middle-class parents are pretty skilled at getting their kids into those government schools perceived as "good". They can afford to move to nice suburbs and they know how to lobby for admission on curriculum grounds or get their children to practise (or be tutored for) select entry, accelerated learning programs. As these school communities get wealthier, more families enroll in them, further widening the gulf between "good" schools and the rest.
What's appalling is the way government inaction has fostered this situation. The Gonski report advocated needs-based funding and an injection of money into schools, mostly the government ones where disadvantaged students are concentrated. Yet the Abbott government has backtracked on the Gonski funding agreements. And incredibly, the Andrews government has legislated to ensure private schools will get a specific amount of funding while stalling on committing to the final two years of Gonski money.
Not long ago, I gave a talk at a western suburbs primary school. It was a 15-minute drive from my kids' state school, but a world away in the look of its grounds. The main building was a low, '60s pebble mix structure – with various rotting window frames – reached via a concrete ramp and edged with cracked, grey asphalt.
There was beauty in the students' faces but the school clearly needed money. I couldn't help comparing it to one of the state primary schools in my neighbourhood with its imposing bluestone and brick classrooms; plantings of olive trees; shady adventure playground and mosaic tiled entrance. Obviously a school's chief asset is teachers – not buildings – but I still felt furious at the unfairness of it all.
A total of 88 per cent of this school's students were from non-English speaking backgrounds; many from disadvantaged families. The teachers I met were great. And the students, mostly, were curious, switched on and enthusiastic. We talked about journalism and a few were rapt to hear that I'd once interviewed Lenny Kravitz at his home in New Orleans.
"Did he live in a mansion?" asked one intense, tall, dark-skinned girl.
"Uh, yeah," I said.
"Do you live in a mansion?"
I can't remember what I mumbled in reply but I've thought a lot about that exchange since.