Only ideological zealots are likely to be impressed
The Labour Party has always struggled with the concept of "voluntary" school donations. In principle, it believes state education should be free and equal for all. But that principle could be enforced only if a law prevented parents from providing a little bit of extra financial help for their children's school. That is untenable, but the party has found another way to exercise its itch.
As part of its education policy, Labour would seek to end voluntary donations by offering an annual grant of $100 per pupil to schools that stop asking parents for money to fund "day-to-day" spending.
It estimates that this would cost just $50 million a year. That figure is based on all state schools in deciles 1 to 7, 30 per cent in deciles 8 to 10, and integrated schools accepting the payment to stop soliciting donations. The assumption seems reasonable given that decile 1 to 3 schools receive an average of $60 a pupil in donations, while decile 10 schools receive nearly $300. Most of the latter will simply continue collecting donations. Their parents can afford to pay the donation and are willing to pay for the value that their children may extract from extra equipment or experiences.
Fifty million dollars is a small sum. In the normal course of events, it could hardly be expected to be the basis for a major vote-winner. Labour is betting on many households with squeezed budgets being tired of children bringing home requests for donations. "The pressure being put on parents to provide 'voluntary' donations to schools has reached unacceptable levels," says its leader, David Cunliffe. In other cases, people may not pay because they have a philosophical objection. Either way, the worry for non-contributing parents is that their children may be discriminated against. According to Labour, one school has used schoolbag tags to identify children whose parents had paid donations to shame other children and parents. It is time, it says, to end such "dubious" tactics.
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But such practices are surely rare. Most parents willingly pay the donation. Most school boards of trustees also go to great lengths to ensure that pupils are not discriminated against if their parents do not pay. They are also fully aware of the financial circumstances of the community from which they draw their pupils and, in the case of schools in poorer communities, gain an injection of equity from decile-based funding. A donation that represents just over $1 a week should be affordable to all but the most strapped household. On that basis, Labour's policy may have rather less appeal than it hopes.
The fact that schools will still be allowed to charge activity fees "for the actual costs of extra-curricular activities such as school camps" adds to that likelihood. The danger is that many will accept the $100 per pupil, but then use other targeted fees to lift the payment from parents. Keeping track of this when it might involve a mountain of costs, such as van rentals for school teams or up-to-date technology, would be extremely difficult. If other fees become commonplace, little will have been gained for parents.
Nobody wants schools to stop striving to provide the best for their pupils. Or for a lack of government funding to stand in their way. Some schools, in their enthusiasm, may have made excessive demands and become petulant when payment was not forthcoming. But the vast majority of parents share the same ambition as the schools that educate their children. In that context, they accept donations. Probably only the zealous advocates of "free" education will embrace Labour's policy as it would like.