Simple, popular policies, on crime, welfare and Maori, might get the National Party elected next year but it will be other subjects that tell us what sort of a Government it would be. Subjects such as education. Don Brash has named education as an area in utmost need of attention and has given the responsibility to the man he displaced as leader, Bill English. So far the results have been fuzzy.
At the party conference last weekend he said the party was reviewing "zoning" to give parents more choice about which school their children could attend. But later he told the Herald that zoning might remain, in some form. No final decision has been made, he said. "There'll certainly be a relaxation of zoning [but] I'm trying to keep expectations fairly low because, particularly in Auckland, removing zoning does not solve many problems at all."
Whatever does he mean? When zoning was abolished by the National Government Aucklanders took advantage of it in droves. There was movement all through the city's social strata as people took the opportunity to get able children into a better school. The shakedown was deeply unsettling to public education providers who want to believe all schools are equally good, but the only parents heard to complain were those who could afford to live in the zone of the most prestigious schools and wanted the automatic right to attend them.
Those zones are usually National electorates, which presents the party with a conflict between its principles and its political interests. Zoning policy will say something about National's character and fitness for office.
It will need to be prepared for another battle with the teacher unions and this time it must not be drawn into a needless argument about how schools are funded. "Bulk-funding" is an entirely normal method of financing autonomous providers of state services. It simply means that the provider is paid for the number of people it serves and it is up to the provider how that money is allocated between staffing and other costs. Health services are bulk-funded; one of the delightful ironies of this Government is that while it proclaims its abhorrence of bulk-funding schools it is doing its utmost to reorganise general medical practices into bulk-funded Primary Health Organisations.
Education is different, they say. But not so very different. Universities are bulk-funded, so are kindergartens. The preschool subsidies announced in the Budget were straightforward grants to childcare centres. Even compulsory schools are given more financial discretion than the bulk-funding issue would suggest. It was never really a financial issue, it was a cover for an industrial issue. Teacher unions opposed the whole trend to greater autonomy of schools because they wanted to preserve national bargaining structures in which teachers could not only stifle competitive pay and work practices but exert a great deal of influence on the very content and character of compulsory education.
That is why structural change remains important. When zoning is abolished and school boards are properly bulk-funded a different character of education is likely to emerge. It will be less determined by national organisations and more responsive to parents and children. If most parents prefer tidy schools, well-dressed teachers and rigorous standards, that is what they will get. Without zoning no school in the larger centres will be able to rely on a captive catchment. The few prestigious schools, which initially would have the choice of applicants, would soon be widely emulated. Supply would meet demand as it always does, when permitted.
That is the prospect National could offer at the next election, if it finds the courage to propose changes that will be bitterly opposed by some articulate interests. If Mr English persists in "trying to keep expectations fairly low", he will have no mandate to do much more.