Posted on 6 April 2018

Education Minister Simon Birmingham [above] has been told to resolve the Catholic education funding crisis amid warnings the issue could lead to the defeat of Coalition MPs in marginal seats. Four federal ministers were among Victorian MPs who met privately with Senator Birmingham this week to help resolve the battle with the Catholic sector that is being exploited by Bill Shorten.

Senator Birmingham was told his war with the sector had become a serious political negative and he needed to make peace with the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria and Melbourne archbishop Denis Hart.

It is understood a clear message was sent - Senator Birmingham must fix the politics of the Catholic education funding issue.

Some MPs also questioned the manner in which Stephen Elder, executive director of the CECV, was running his campaign but several sources said it was left for Senator Birmingham to find a solution that protected vulnerable Liberals facing an unprecedented campaign by the church.

Ministers Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, Michael Sukkar and Dan Tehan attended the meeting in the office of Senate president Scott Ryan. They were told by Victorian Liberal director Nick Demiris that the education funding issue was important to many voters and there was a risk the brawl with the Catholic sector would bleed into an electorally damaging row.

It comes amid a broad revolt against Senator Birmingham in the Victorian Liberal Party, with state leader Matthew Guy and party president Michael Kroger backing a sharp shift in strategy.

"There is no question everyone wants a rapprochement," an MP familiar with the Canberra meeting said. A second senior Liberal said there was a clear message: "We are sympathetic because he's (Senator Birmingham) got a hard job, but it can't go on."

The issue is becoming increasingly critical in inner-city seats like those held by Ms O'Dwyer, the Revenue Minister, and Mr Frydenberg, the Environment and Energy Minister. Both represent electorates where Greens support is a growing force and which are home to several independent and Catholic schools. Ms O'Dwyer holds Higgins, Mr Frydenberg Kooyong.

The government is exposed to a voter backlash in 13 marginal seats along the east coast. Analysis of the 13 marginal seats in NSW, Queensland and Victoria shows almost 70,000 children were Catholic-educated in those seats in 2016.

Senator Birmingham did not respond to questions on the meeting but said: "I'm fully focused on implementing our consistent and needs-based funding model that is fair for all schools, which delivers an extra $3.5 billion for Catholic school systems and will only be enhanced further by the independent review of the SES methodology."

 He apologised to Mr Elder last week after claiming the former state Liberal MP could be "bought by a few pieces of silver".

The CECV backed Labor in this month's Batman by-election on the back of the school funding issue. Labor has promised Catholic schools an extra $250 million.

The Weekend Australian also understands that Malcolm Turnbull has been told that the fight will cost seats and that the government needs to stop attacking the sector.

Senator Birmingham has in the past been insistent that the policy should not be changed. Senior Liberals said the automatic assumption was that the government would overhaul its school socioeconomic status funding model, which is often inaccurate. But Senator Birmingham will have to deal with a review of the system that is under way and will be constrained, depending on what that review finds.

There is speculation the SES review will draw on tax and income data at each school to determine a more accurate SES score.

As well as being disadvantaged by the SES system, under the Gonski 2.0 vision, Catholic schools will also receive a smaller percentage lift in funding than public and independent schools over the decade. This is part of the deliberate strategy of the Coalition to undo old funding deals it argues were biased towards the Catholic sector.

Under the SES system, scores are calculated using census data with families assigned to a neighbourhood of about 200 households. The families are assumed to have the average means of that neighbourhood but this can create significant distortions in areas where wealthy people live alongside poorer people.

Under Senator Birmingham's current system, a "poor" Catholic school that caters for people in public housing in Melbourne's inner northwest has been handed an SES score of 119 because of gentrification in parts of the suburb.

But arguably Australia's most elite private school, Geelong Grammar, is judged to be "poorer" because it has an SES score of 115.

FROM: Weekend Australian, Australia  by John Ferguson

31 Mar 2018
Tags: Funding

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