School zoning was a subject once close to the heart of public education. Now it serves a vested interest of a different sort.
Zoning was designed to stop prestigious schools poaching pupils from the less fortunate. Whether it has succeeded in that purpose is hard to tell because probably for every potential pupil excluded from these schools, another has found a way to enter its zone. Whether it be using a false address or claiming to reside with an in-zone relative, the ruses used have been the subject of frequent complaint by principals of the desired schools. With the intensification of residential development in Epsom's "double grammar zone", local MP David Seymour is suggesting a law change to let schools exclude prospective newcomers.
The simple and logical solution, of course, would be to shrink the zone - bring the boundaries in to give the school the projected population that matches its capacity. But if zoning was originally close to the heart of public education, the grammar zone is now much closer to the hearts, and wallets, of those who have bought a home in the zone. Any suggestion that the zone may be redrawn would be fiercely resisted using lawyers. Even an attempt by nearby schools, One Tree Hill College and Selwyn College, to draw zones overlapping the grammar zone two years ago, had residents talking to lawyers until the colleges backed down. Mr Seymour was on the side of the residents.
Now he is defending the property values of his existing constituents with a suggestion that would reduce the rights of newcomers, which seems brave. An electorate area can shrink as easily as a school zone when its population increases. Residents of the 600 additional apartments to be built in the zone within the next three years might not thank their MP for sponsoring a law that removed their automatic right to send their children to the nearest school, Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls Grammar.
Ironically, "the right to attend the nearest school" was the principle advanced by a previous Epsom MP, Christine Fletcher, to have zoning restored in a partial reversal of the competitive elements of the "Tomorrow's Schools" reform. But withdrawing that right from future residents is only one possible solution Mr Seymour has proposed. Another, he suggests, would be to block students who lived in the zone without their parents. He says schools have told him of foreigners buying a house in the zone, staying just long enough to gain permanent residency and their child's enrolment, then leave the child here with relatives or acquaintances.
His third and most obvious suggestion is to build more high schools in the area. The Ministry of Education bought land for a new school from the Auckland Trotting Club in 1999 but the school has not eventuated. It was opposed by residents who feared for their real estate values. The restoration of zoning has created a monster capable of defeating the ministry's reasonable plans. Mr Seymour's proposal to pull up the drawbridge against new arrivals may be the only political solution but it would be simpler to abolish zones and restore schools' freedom to enrol aspirants from anywhere.