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The Southern Cross : April 2012
April 2012 Page 5 www.thesoutherncross.org.au The Southern Cross news | Special report by Rebecca DiGirolamo Sam Garton was born with Spina bifida. The 13-year-old veteran of 19 operations is severely limited by her immobility. She is among a group of 20 students with physical and mental disabilities at a special education division, called the St Mary's Unit, at Cabra Dominican College. While Sam spends time at the unit's education centre housed within Cabra's Cumberland Park grounds, it is her time in the mainstream classroom that she looks forward to most. "It makes me feel happy that I can hang out with my friends from class and have friends in the unit too." While Sam feels accepted by her able- bodied classmates, her disability is not treated equally across the education sector. The recently released Gonski Review of Australia's education system found students with disabilities in non-government schools received "substantially less public funding" than students with disabilities in government schools. Catholic Special schools, special education units in Catholic schools and students with disabilities in mainstream Catholic schools have to make up the funding inequity through extra funding from Catholic Education South Australia, Federal Government funds and higher school fees. "It's not fair," say Sam's parents, Beverley and Paul, of the greater financial burden placed on the Catholic system and on parents. "I think it is an injustice," says Paul. Ten of the Gartons 11 children -- seven of whom have disabilities -- have attended Catholic schools. The couple travelled 100km a day to send daughter Therese to a special education unit at Cardijn College in Noarlunga Downs. Paul says parents have a right of choice over their child's education that should not be affected by funding inequity between the sectors. "All parents have a right to get the best education possible for their children and when children have a disability, those rights don't seem to come to the party," says Paul. South Australian Catholic educators are urging the Federal and State governments to support recommendations to overhaul an unbalanced funding regime in which a student with a disability in a Catholic special school can receive up to $11,000 less in state funding compared to a student in a government special school. "Even your most strident supporter of the government education sector will acknowledge that a student with disabilities, regardless of what school they go to, should get a fair go," said Catholic Education South Australia (CESA) director Dr Paul Sharkey. His comments follow the recently released Gonski Review, which included several recommendations on the education of children with disabilities. A pivotal recommendation is that governments should fully fund students with a defined disability across all education sectors. The review found: "Students with disabilities in non-government schools receive substantially less public funding than their counterparts in government schools." A review of financial figures by The Southern Cross last month found Catholic Education's two special schools received about $22,000 per student in recurrent State Government funding in 2010. Funding for several comparable State Government special schools ranged from $22,000 to $33,000 per student. These figures were compiled from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority's (ACARA) MySchool website. Dr Sharkey said that although the State Government had increased funding for students with disabilities across the board in recent years, the Catholic education sector in South Australia was operating at 10 percent less than the cost of the State Government school system. "We are drawing from already limited resources to provide an appropriate level of education and care for students with disabilities in our schools," he said. The funding inequity means Catholic special schools and special education units within Catholic schools are largely supported by extra funding from CESA and school fees, with some Federal Government-targeted funding. The Federal Government is expected to propose funding options at the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) later this month in Canberra. A working group across all education sectors is being established to tackle funding for children with disabilities. There are 106 students aged from five to 20 years old with moderate to severe disabilities at two Catholic special schools in South Australia -- St Patrick's at Dulwich and St Ann's at Marion. There are five special education units (at Cabra Dominican College, Thomas More College, Mount Carmel College, Cardijn College and St Patrick's School, Mansfield Park) and there are about 1750 students with a disability in 103 mainstream Catholic schools. Paul and Beverley Garton, parents of 13-year-old St Mary's Unit student Sam at Cabra College, said the $11,000 funding difference was an "injustice" (see story below). St Patrick's Special School principal Craig Battams said educating a child with a disability should have nothing to do with what school system the child was in. "It's about the children," said Dr Battams. "They have the same rights to quality education." Cabra Dominican College principal Brian Schumacher said across the board funding for students with a disability would lessen the demand on special education units like the St Mary's Unit at Cabra which educates 20 students with disabilities from Years 6 to 12. Mr Schumacher said the demand for a place at St Mary's came from parents across all three education sectors. "All we have capacity for is to meet the demand of those kids coming from Catholic schools in our feeder area," said Mr Schumacher. "It really breaks your heart when you have a family with a child that has a special need and you can see they would make a great contribution to the school community and you have to say no to them." State education Minister Grace Portolesi said the State Government welcomed the Gonski review and was working with the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments and sector representatives to frame the response to the findings of the review, including identifying how the State Government can best support all students with a disability. Sam in a class of her own EQUAL RIGHTS: (L-R) Paul and Beverley Garton with daughter Sam, one of the 1800-plus students with disabilities who attend Catholic schools in South Australia. Unfair disability funding FAIR GO: Cabra Dominican College principal Brian Schumacher with students (L-R) Micah Hahn and Timon Sideris at the school's special education unit, one of five in Catholic Education SA.