The Human Rights Commission is appointed by the party in power and appointees broadly reflect its philosophy. It was probably to be expected, therefore, that sooner or later under this Government the commission would look beyond its liberal brief and venture into the field of "social rights". It made its move last week, issuing what it calls an "action plan for human rights". Among the items on the plan are proposals to tackle poverty, give every child and disabled person an adequate standard of living, and development of schools and preschool centres as "human rights communities", which evidently includes enforcement of the right to a free education.
The commission has taken it upon itself to uphold the right of parents to refuse to pay school fees. Nothing could better illustrate the minefield the commission is entering. Human rights are typically rights that everyone can enjoy equally at no cost to others. Society can recognise and uphold certain rights and freedoms because they can be applied equally to everyone; they do not require some people to be awarded rights at the expense of others. Social rights are quite the opposite. They can be awarded only at the expense of others.
The right to refuse to pay a school fee, for example, imposes added cost on those who are willing to pay the fee, unless the children of non-payers are excluded from the activities it provides. Chief Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan says it is concerned with parents who cannot afford to pay, but if that were so it would discover that most schools readily make allowance for them. Her commission's real sympathy is with those who say it is their right not to pay.
The Education Act, of course, guarantees all New Zealanders a free education to the end of secondary school. And to that end schools are state-funded for a core curriculum. But most schools want to provide far more than that, and within schools that charge a "donation" the vast majority of parents pay it.
Education Minister David Benson-Pope points out that nearly half the country's state schools do not charge a fee, which means parents in most places probably still could find a "free" school if they wanted one. But they do not; they are attracted to the schools that charge fees because those schools tend to be better appointed, more reputable, better endowed for extra-curricula activities. Those who refuse to contribute expect the state to provide that level of amenities and activities at no extra charge.
The public debate is not helped by the fact that school boards and principals defend fees on the contention that the state grant is inadequate for their needs. Education Ministers contend just as strongly that it is adequate. And it probably is; our public spending on schools compares well internationally. But adequacy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Schools that charge fees might argue that carpeted classrooms and state-of-the-art computers are vital necessities for the education they want to prove. The keepers of the taxpayers' purse are entitled to take a more realistic view.
The commission talks of taking "strategic litigation" to have the courts decide what constitutes the level of education that everyone can expect free as of right. It would be asking the court to fix a moving feast. Ultimately, there is no limit to the money schools could use from taxes and private contributions. There is no level of public funding that would remove the urge of schools to a do a bit more and ask parents to pay for it.
And most parents with the means are quite happy to contribute to the extra. The Human Rights Commission is concerned for the few who are not willing to pay and whose children might be excluded from fee-funded activities. It threatens to advance their "rights" at the expense of those who are willing to pay for the activities. The rights of those willing to pay evidently count for much less. That is usually the way when human rights are mistaken for social welfare.