Schools are bracing themselves for a drop in funding as parents feel the pinch of rising food and petrol prices.
Principals say the economic downturn has led to a fall in the payment of "voluntary" donations for running costs. And some are threatening to boycott a new Government education plan until funding problems are ironed out. But Education Minister Chris Carter has told schools to "stop moaning and start teaching".
The North Shore Principals Association last week withdrew support for the Government's Schools Plus scheme, designed to keep Kiwis in education or training until they were 18. It said 21 Government initiatives were not being fully funded and the new demands were putting extra pressure on schools to secure so-called donations, when many families could least afford them.
A Herald on Sunday survey of schools across the North Island showed the amount schools asked for varied. Only one school requested no donation - decile-2 Mangere Central School, in South Auckland. Decile-10 Auckland Grammar wanted the most, $810 a pupil.
Decile-10 Rangitoto College, the country's biggest school, has increased its donation by about a third over the past four years to $250.
Pinehill School, a North Shore decile-10 primary, charges $160 a year a child, generating $60,000 in income.
"Whenever the economy tightens we notice more parents exercising the right to not pay the donation," said principal Julien LeSueur.
Murray's Bay, another decile-10 North Shore primary school, asks for $190 a year. Principal Ken Pemberton said he was lucky about 90 per cent paid because the school relied on the money. "It's one of the most dishonest things the Government's doing, saying education is free. We are having to fund more and more."
Decile-10 Howick College in East Auckland has seen its income from donations drop by 20 per cent since April last year to $166,000.
Alan McIntyre, the principal of another Howick school, decile-9 Owairoa Primary, said in the past five years no more than 69 per cent of parents had paid the $220 donation.
Fairfield Intermediate in Hamilton asks parents for just $50 a child, but only about a third pay.
"We've got to get the rest ourselves," said principal Bill Noble, who is also president of the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools.
"You can't cut back on mowing the lawns, you can't cut back on the cleaning of the schools, you can't cut back on the amount of loo paper that you buy, but you can cut back on the books you buy for the library."
Principal of Tauranga's decile-8 Otumoetai College, Dave Randell, said about half his pupils would usually have paid their donation by June. This year only a third had.
Owen Alexander, principal of North Shore decile-9 Takapuna Normal school and Auckland Primary Principals Association president, called for a Government rethink. "The model we're using to fund education is not working."
Carter said the Government had put $5 billion into education since 1999. This year's amount was 4.4 per cent of the gross domestic product, compared with 3.5 per cent in Australia.
"Every school is adequately funded but schools choose to raise funds from their community," he said. "Some principals are being, I won't say dishonest, but disingenuous when claiming half of their funds come from the community.
"It gets to a time when you've got to stop moaning and start teaching."
Cost of classes
Mother-of-three Angela Palmer accepts school costs are a fact of life.
Her children - Jarvis, 11, Oona, 9 and Milo, 7 - all go to Auckland primary Balmoral School, at a combined cost of $600 a year.
With extras such as sport and stationery, Palmer believes that rises to about $1000 all up.
"That's affordable education in this country."
Palmer, who manages the Parnell branch of Ray White Real Estate, said it was important to pay. "I guess it depends on what you value. I would rather pay the school fees and sacrifice something else. "
But she accepted that other families might not be so lucky. "Life has got more expensive by the minute, I think everyone feels that. There are some people who genuinely can't pay and won't be able to pay."