Free education remains a principle held dear by many New Zealanders who resent paying a "donation" to a state school, and in some cases refuse to pay it. The Labour Party holds the principle particularly dear and this Government is going to try to drive out donations with an extra grant to any school that does not ask for them.
It is a good idea insofar as it will make the total funds each school receives a little more equal. But it will not abolish school fees, which is really what they are.
Schools such as Auckland Grammar, as we report today, will not take the additional grant of $150 per student. It received $831 per student in fees last year. At the other end of the income spectrum, schools like Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara will gladly accept the grant. It receives no fees to give up, it does not ask for them from households that struggle to feed and clothe their children.
A survey we have conducted of state schools suggests 70 per cent plan to accept the Government's proposal, which must means it is more than they normally receive from parents. Only about 20 per cent of the country's 2531 schools ask for no money so a 70 per cent acceptance would mean the Government's offer is high enough to replace the amounts most receive.
But our feature by Simon Collins today also finds that parental fees are not the only source of additional funds for some schools. Pokie trusts are another source they use to finance class trips and equipment that their operations grant from the Ministry of Education does not cover. There will always be a demand for more than the ministry provides. It is human nature.
In state services like health and education, providers will always want to provide more, for good reason. They are professionals who want to provide the best service possible with the money available to them. The more money they have at their disposal, the more illnesses they can treat, or the more educational aids and experiences they can provide for their pupils.
When asking parents for their annual "donation", school principals always say the government grant is not sufficient to cover the education the children deserve. Of course it is not. It can never be enough. The only check on how much of any good thing we want is the price we are asked to pay. When it comes at no charge most people will readily pay for a bit more.
That is why Labour's scheme to replace school fees is probably futile. The grant will be built into the schools' basic operations and from time to time teachers will want to do new things — take a class somewhere special, seize a rare learning opportunity too good to turn down — that will be possible only with a parental contribution.
Parents who refuse, steadfastly insisting education is supposed to be free — and every state school has them, including those in well-off communities — should think about this. Their children do not usually miss out on the extra opportunities because they should not suffer for the parents' view. So the paying parents subsidise them.
The Government's scheme, if it comes to fruition, will reinforce the views of those who refuse to pay. When they know their school is getting an extra grant to pay for things they refused to pay anyway, they will be even more resolute. Totally free education is fine in principle but ultimately impractical.