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Don’t confuse a public education with a free education.

BY TALISHA OHANESSIAN

When most of us think public education we think free education.

This idea, after all, is a cornerstone of a fair and healthy society, where kids can get a decent start in life whatever their parents’ circumstances.

But in reality, Victorian public schools are only free to a point.

They’re free in the same way budget airlines look dirt cheap. Once you add in all the little extras you need to pay for, the costs pile up.

For a secondary school student, it can cost more than $5,000 a year to send one child to state school.

For primary school students it can be $3,000 or more.

These alarming figures have been creeping up by hundreds of dollars a year. Some of the costs include uniforms, textbooks, camps or sports, excursions and, increasingly, devices.

Parents at some state schools are told that their kids can’t use the existing family tablet or laptop, but have to buy a specific up-to-date model.

Officially, schools must provide devices where families aren’t able to afford it, but some schools aren’t complying with this requirement. It’s a symptom of a broader problem dogging parents: state schools should be funded to provide standard, core goods that include essential items and activities that students require to engage in the curriculum.

The Parent Payment Policy, which outlines voluntary and non-voluntary payments, needs to be better monitored and enforced, to avoid parents being harassed for payments and students missing out on school activities.

Some school costs – like building and maintenance funds – are meant to be voluntary, but this is not always made clear to families.

And schools should have clear and effective hardship clauses that give parents payment options if they’re struggling.

No child should be excluded from school activities because their parents can’t pay.

Some school costs are meant to be voluntary, but this is not always made clear to families.

The State Government has taken positive steps in providing longer-term funding for the Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund and for State Schools Relief, which provides subsidies for school uniforms, shoes and educational resources.

Unfortunately however, these organisations and the grant amounts they can provide are not even close to sufficient to cover the full amount to send a child to school.

Organisations like CISVic are increasingly seeing families who need support to cover up-front costs at the start of the year.

Families will get some relief from measures like greater transparency – making clear what are voluntary and non-voluntary costs – and from monitoring and enforcing regulations like the Parent Payment Policy.

Ultimately though, if we’re talking about educational equity, parents should not be asked to cover any core educational costs to send their children to a free state school, and funding levels need to reflect this.

The Government can step up to make sure that families aren’t out of pocket. State schools need to be adequately funded so they have the resources to provide for every student. Then all hidden costs can be abolished.

Free education is enshrined in law. Students, families and our communities deserve nothing less.

This call for a genuinely free public school education for Victorian kids appears in A State Of Wellbeing, VCOSS’s formal submission to the Victorian Government ahead of the 2020 state budget.

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