FEDERAL government funding for every student regardless of the income of their parents or the wealth of their school is now part of a ''citizenship entitlement'', with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, yesterday in effect declaring it part of a new Australian compact.
But while Ms Gillard committed her government to fund all schools regardless of wealth or need, she refused to commit the money that the long-running review of school funding says is needed to restore Australia's ailing education system to health.
The review, headed by the Sydney businessman David Gonski, proposed an overhaul of school funding to be backed by the injection of more than $5 billion to reverse the slippage in Australia's school performance, warning that the nation's global competitiveness was at stake.
But Ms Gillard repeatedly refused to commit to the funding. An official government response cited the need to return the budget to surplus next financial year and warned that ''the scope of the proposed new funding contributions may be too large''.
Instead, another round of consultations and working parties will be established with stakeholders including state education ministers. Parents, too, would be encouraged to have their say.
Mr Gonski's panel was ''strongly of the view'' the new funding arrangements were needed to ensure differences in educational outcomes in Australia were not the result of differences in ''wealth, income, power or possessions''.
The review proposes a new Schooling Resource Standard to be based on the cost of educating children in high performing schools. It would be lower than the present average funding but with loadings added to address those factors known to affect student performance such as low socio-economic status, disability, indigenous background, remoteness, school size and English proficiency.
It recommends governments ''significantly increase'' funding to schools where students experience multiple factors of disadvantage. It cites high concentrations of poor and indigenous students as having the most significant effect on educational outcomes.
The resource standard would recognise that similar student populations require the same level of resources regardless of which sector they were in.
Private schools serving disadvantaged students should be able to operate without collecting any fees.
The panel, which operated under federal government direction that no school could lose a dollar in funding as a result of the changes, said the principal justification for funding wealthy schools was that governments had done so for many decades.
Ms Gillard was much more specific. ''I do believe that as effectively a citizenship entitlement, people are entitled to see government support for the funding of their child's education,'' she said.
Private schools were ''amazed'' by Ms Gillard's commitment.
''That was an extraordinary comment and we welcome it completely. I've not heard it from any Labor politician,'' said Geoff Newcombe, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in NSW.
In order to protect private school funding the review recommends the minimum public contribution be set at between 20 and 25 per cent of the resource standard. A new model of assessing need in non-government schools is also proposed. It would be based on the capacity of parents to contribute financially to the school. Initially, this would be calculated from the socio-economic status of parents but Mr Gonski wants a more sophisticated measure to be developed.
The review's commitment that governments make reducing educational disadvantage a high priority was endorsed by teachers.
Angelo Gavrielatos, the federal president of the Australian Education Union, said it was great news.
''The review has spoken and it has told us the current funding arrangements are failing our children and failing the nation. As Mr Gonski says we've been slipping and there is a risk of greater slippage unless we address this matter,'' he said.
''We call on the government to get on with the job. We need a timetable for legislation this year so we see this new funding system put in place.''
Both Catholic and independent school sectors responded positively to Mr Gonski's recommendations but remain apprehensive about the government's capacity to deliver change and warn that much work needs to be done to understand the implications.
''It's a theoretical model but we don't know where it takes us until you put the data into it and it doesn't work without the extra $5 billion and we don't have a firm commitment around that,'' said Brian Croke, the executive director of the Catholic Education Commission of NSW.