Leaders vie with each other to be teacher's pet

''I'M THE best friend of private schools!'' the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced yesterday morning with some confidence.

After all, how many Labor leaders have seen the light on the hill shining from the glass of a new science lab built on the extensive grounds of a century-old private school that tops up the educational offering that $25,000 a year buys you with a healthy dose of federal funding?

But in the playground battle of politics, even that's not enough.

''No you're not,'' countered Tony Abbott. ''I'm an even better friend of private schools.''

The Opposition Leader now says private schools are missing out: they educate 34 per cent of students but receive just 21 per cent of government funding.

Few people in Australian can honestly say they understand the school education funding arrangements. And most who do have skin in the game and rigorous ideological objectives.

But it's a fact of modern family life that conversations about school choice take over from property prices as soon as a mortgage is signed and kids arrive.

Funding for every school - regardless of its resources - is now part of the Australian compact. But before Ms Gillard is finished countering the Liberal scare campaign over private school dollars, ever-increasing funding will be locked into the national political landscape.

Nationally, twice as many of these children go to public schools as attend private schools. But in the cities, that dominance shrinks and in high school it shrinks even further. In high school, in capital cities, the independent school sector believes non-government student numbers are pushing 50 per cent.

What is abundantly clear is that more than 50 per cent of Australian families seriously consider sending their child to a private school. Scores of parents say they would if they could - which only serves to increase the political power of the private school lobby.

But it is typically not those children who are missing out.

Australia's educational performance lags because of its ''long tail'' of under-performing students, most of them in government schools where the percentage of students held back by proven disadvantages such as disabilities, low socio-economic backgrounds, isolation and being indigenous continues to grow with every upwardly mobile family opting out of the public sector.

Everyone involved in education agrees those students need more support. And David Gonski, the businessman brought in to review the system, emphatically made the case that reform was urgent.

But the cost of not taking a dollar from private schools meant the investment needed to get money flowing to those students most in need was huge: $5 billion in 2009 terms and rising.

Now, Ms Gillard has gone further. In trumping her own promise that no school would lose a dollar with a promise of even more (and indexed) funding, the bill ratchets up again. Public school advocates, led by the Australian Education Union, will scream blue murder if her government is not prepared to foot the bill in her rush to win over middle Australia.

The story Leaders vie with each other to be teacher's pet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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