From the President: Education funding issues not unique to Australia

As teachers and principals around Australia prepare for an upcoming federal election in which schools funding and TAFE will be major issues of contention, we can gain important perspectives from reflecting on the challenges facing students and teachers in other parts of the world.

“The successes that happen in classrooms every day, both academic and emotional, largely go unseen, and most cannot be measured or displayed on a data wall. We, as teachers, know our students and what they need.”

Does this sound familiar? This plea was contained in a recent letter from a primary school teacher in Detroit, Michigan, published in the Huffington Post. The teacher was responding to an attack by a school district manager on teachers who had taken action to highlight the deplorable teaching and learning conditions in public schools in that city.

Teaching and learning conditions are so bad in Detroit public schools that students and teachers banded together to close schools in protest. Schools in Detroit have been under state government control for more than six years due to the failure of the city’s management of the school system. Schools face crippling debt due to chronic under-funding. Teachers and school leaders have taken pay cuts and lent money (totalling more than $10,000) to the schools to meet ongoing costs. Maintenance of school facilities has been sacrificed to keep schools open and teachers teaching.

In an innovative strategy led by the teachers’ union, parents were encouraged to “walk in” to schools and visit their children’s classrooms to experience the conditions first hand. More than 50 schools were effectively shut down for a day of action that saw massive media attention, while the state legislature debated laws that would act to strip teachers of their licence to teach for inciting or participating in the events.

The outcome achieved by this campaign is not yet clear and it will take some time to be worked out. What we know is that a coalition of students, parents, teachers, school leaders and the union working in concert is formidable and politicians at all levels must meaningfully respond to the issues raised or face electoral repercussions. While the sentiments of this Detroit teacher are shared by the profession as a whole, the scenario for those teachers is very different from our own.

Parts of our education system are struggling, but it is far from the point of collapse our American colleagues are facing. Our schools are not crippled by debt, but there is urgency in our need to respond to the threatened erosion of education funding contained in the Abbott budgets and confirmed by Turnbull and his Ministers. Gonski offers real hope and an opportunity to establish an equitable funding solution for all students, with the right decisions being made by government to invest in education. Detroit serves as an illustration of the state of education we do not want to see: a situation that can be avoided.

Investing in education can close the gap in education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, meet the needs of students with disability, overcome the tyranny of isolation, free students from a future determined by postcode and protect TAFE, a high-quality, century old public vocational education and training system. Real benefits for students and teachers and for the whole Australian community.

Kevin Bates                                                                                                                   President

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 121 No 2, 1 March 2016, p7