It's time Education Minister Hekia Parata got her priorities right. On Monday, she could have defended New Zealand's free and universal education system, by caning Whangarei Boys' High School principal Al Kirk for humiliating 30 pupils when he isolated them in the school hall until their parents paid outstanding school fees. Instead, she went in for a bit of political grandstanding.

With lame-duck Act leader John Banks at her side, she announced plans to waste scarce education funds on a high-powered taskforce charged with rooting out "education red tape".

The taskforce, which is part of National's post-election coalition deal with Act, will, she says, "investigate regulations that may distract or hinder schools from focusing on raising achievement for all young people".

With 30 Whangarei schoolboys forced to ring home and tell their parents they were being held hostage by the headmaster until last year's school "donations" were paid, surely the scandal of school donations should have been Ms Parata's focus this week, rather than a bloated taskforce set up to appease the ideological sensibilities of Act.

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As Minister of Education, Ms Parata should have been carpeting her senior bureaucrats for their ongoing failure to enforce section 3 of the Education Act 1989 which states that every domestic student is entitled to free enrolment and free education at a state school from the person's fifth birthday until January 1 following the person's 19th birthday.

It's not as though they're unaware of the law. A June 2013 circular from the ministry underlines that "the right to free education ... means that there should be no charges associated with the delivery of the curriculum".

It says the terms "fees" and "levies" should not be used to describe donations. And that while many boards of trustees "will ask parents to pay a specified sum of money to support the provision of additional services", such donations are voluntary. "Parents have the right topay donations in full, in part, or not atall."

The circular states that "at no time should students, or their families, be placed in a position to be embarrassed over non-payment of either a debt or a requested donation".

It adds: "The public identification in any way, by inclusion or omission, of parents who have or have not made a donation is inappropriate and likely to breach the Privacy Act 1993."

All of which seems eminently easy to understand. Yet principal Kirk rejects it. He says he's been at it for eight years, not, he says, to humiliate the kids, but because parents were more likely to pay if their sons were inconvenienced. As in held hostage in the school hall.

Closer to Auckland, Whangaparaoa School was forced to back down last week after media reports that it was issuing "bag tags" to parents on payment of a "voluntary" $140 donation.

A school spokesman said it wasn't meant to shame students who hadn't paid. Of course not.

Imagine if your district health board went down this road. There you are, all prepped and lying on the public hospital operating table, when the surgeon leans over and asks for your credit card details. Sorry about this, she says, but anaesthetics are extra. And I'll leave the account open so we can deduct your meal charges and pain relief.

That "free" education has long been something of a myth doesn't make the ongoing flouting of the Education Act by politicians, bureaucrats and many - but not all - schools any more acceptable.

All the ministry seems to do is issue another circular when embarrassed into action.

Flicking through the files, I notice they issued a stern tut tut back in 1998 when Ponsonby Intermediate demanded a $700 fee from parents, including a "compulsory charge" of $450. Two years later, Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris was caught red-handed sending a letter to prospective parents inviting them to an enrolment evening and adding, "It would be appreciatedif you could bring the school fee of$500 at this time to confirm acceptance of the place offered."

Labour Education Minister Trevor Mallard said at the time that this was totally unacceptable, but nothing seems to have changed.

This year Auckland Grammar's "donation" is $1050, the first state school to hit four figures. Headmaster Tim O'Connor says it's necessary because government funding covers only half the school's annual operating budget.

Mr O'Connor, who is a member of the new red-tape-busters taskforce, last year told the Herald "the use of the term [donation] provides the suggestion that education is free in this country, but the reality is it isn't".

If it isn't, it's because Ms Parata and her predecessors have stood by and done nothing while Mr O'Connor and a procession of principals and board of trustees have openly ignored a basic tenet of New Zealand life dating back at least to the 1877 Education Act, which legislated for free and secular education for children between 5 and 15.

Otahuhu College, which keeps its voluntary donation to $30, shows that it can be done. It's up to boards and principals to draw up budgets that meet their legal remit to provide "free" education. If schools want more, then their fight is with the politicians. They should not be allowed to bully, shame or otherwise extract, top-up funds from parents.

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