Public or private? It's a question guaranteed to spark fierce debate and ruin many a dinner party. Professor Scott Prasser from ACU's Public Policy Institute braves the waters to dispel one of the most commonly held myths.
"One of the main polarising issues between public and private school supporters is the issue of equity. However, the often-touted view that non-government schools foster inequality and cater only for the wealthy is out of step with reality - and the latest evidence.
Our Equity in Education research paper, prepared for the Independent Schools Council of Australia, shows that non-government schools make a significant contribution towards a more equitable society by the quality of education they provide.
Their education results are better thanks to a clear focus on individual students, close links with the school community, and the ability to respond flexibly and innovatively.
Most importantly, these superior outcomes do not depend on the socio-economic characteristics of the students.
Our report has been timely, given the Federal Government's Gonski Review to assess the "future of funding arrangements for schooling in Australia for the period beginning 2013".
Australia has an education system with public and non-government sectors operating side-by-side, with both receiving government support. The Federal Government is the main provider of funds for the non-government sector (this includes the Catholic Systemic and Independent school sectors).
The states are the prime funders of public schools. Overall, the total Federal Government recurrent spending (Commonwealth and states) in 2008-9 on primary and secondary schools was $39 billion.
The non-government sector, with 34 per cent of students, receives 21 per cent of government funding, while the public sector, with 66 per cent of students, receives 79 per cent of total funds.
Although government funding of the non-government sector has been a settled area of public policy with bipartisan support since the 1970s, it is not without some controversy. Some believe government funding to non-government schools should be reduced or cut completely. Others are critical that religious-based schools receive public funds. The Gonski Review has reopened some of these old concerns.
In this environment it is important that discussion is conducted on evidence and not prejudices.
Unfortunately, there are many myths about how much the non-government sector receives, levels of parental contributions and issues about quality, choice and equity.
The argument that increased funding alone will improve equity flies in the face of our research.
In order to address disadvantage, governments need to invest in school achievement and effectiveness, as well as fund proven programs targeting educational disadvantage - whether students are attending government or non-government schools.
Our findings are backed by the latest international research, which shows that school systems with attributes such as autonomy, accountability and choice lead to greater equity and higher achievement, and reduce the dependence of student achievement on their particular social background.
The Equity in Education report is the first of three research papers, and is available at www.acu.edu.au/ppi
While the reports have been commissioned by the Independent Schools Council of Australia, the subsequent findings and proposed policy options are the independent work of the Public Policy Institute.
Two additional research reports are soon to follow: Choice and Values, on whether there should be choice and variety or a one-size-fits-all approach to the provision of education services; and Parental Contributions to Education, exploring why families make significant private investment in schooling when the alternative of free public education is available.
Professor Scott Prasser is Executive Director of Australian Catholic University's Public Policy Institute.