Almost half of New Zealand preschools are charging parents for what is supposed to be a free government-funded service, according to a Herald on Sunday investigation.
Under 20 hours early childhood education rules, childcare centres and preschools must not charge parents any fees, but we have discovered that many providers are exploiting two loopholes to boost revenue at parents' expense.
We surveyed more than 300 providers. In their responses, 45 per cent said they topped up their government funding either through "optional charges" for specific extras, compulsory extra hours, or both. Education Minister Hekia Parata advised unhappy parents to shop around. Early childhood education "is provided by private organisations, therefore the Government has no control over the fees they charge. Parents obviously have choices around early childhood education options".
Parata's comments drew scathing responses from parents in small towns where there is little choice.
Mum-of-three Belinda Evans, from Colville in the north of the Coromandel Peninsula, says she has no option but to send her 4-year-old son to the local preschool.
"If we didn't use the local facilities I would have a 30-minute drive to the next childcare centre, so shopping around simply isn't on. Fortunately, I only have to pay an optional charge of $10 every month to cover things like popcorn or other treats."
Rebecca Schwass, from Te Puke, says she is lucky to get free childcare for her son at a local Barnardos kindy.
"Comments about shopping around don't make sense for people in small or out-of-the-way communities," she says. "It is not like we live in the middle of Wellington or Auckland where it might be a lot easier to pick and choose."
About 91 per cent of preschools have signed up to the 20 hours scheme, launched by Labour as "20 hours free" in 2007. National quietly dropped the word "free" in 2009, but centres are still prohibited from charging.
Parata said: "Parents must not be charged for 20 hours (at centres). The Ministry of Education investigates all alleged breaches of funding."
Our survey found some centres aren't giving parents a choice, and "optional" charges - for costs such as lunches, extra staffing, sunblock - are often compulsory.
Education Ministry ECE group manager Karl Le Quesne urged parents being forced to pay optional charges to contact the ministry. "Parents can't be required to pay that and if a service is requiring parents to pay that then we want to know."
However, the ministry did not interfere with centres requiring children to be enrolled for a minimum number of hours.
Labour spokeswoman Sue Moroney said the rules needed tightening. Many providers were making up for the squeeze on funding but some were focusing on profits.