Kōhanga reo volunteers will be paid the minimum wage by 2021 in a Budget boost seen as a first step towards resolving a Treaty of Waitangi claim lodged eight years ago.

Associate Minister of Education Kelvin Davis has announced that the country's 453 kōhanga, or Māori language nests, will get a $32 million injection in the financial year starting on July 1.

The money comprises:

• $21.4m to pay volunteers at the planned minimum wage of $20 by 2021, and to raise the pay of other staff to maintain relativities.

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• $8.5m to improve the state of kōhanga buildings after the poor state of many buildings caused some kōhanga to lose funding under Ministry of Education rules.

• $2.5m to improve the movement's information and communications technology (ICT).

Kōhanga Reo National Trust co-chairman Daniel Procter said the money would be paid as a $1.98 increase from July 1 in the funding rates, which are now $3.96 per child per hour at standard rates for children aged 2 and over, $4.51 at the "quality" rate, and $7.86 "standard" and $8.98 "quality" for children under 2.

Each kōhanga will then be free to decide how to allocate the money to pay staff and volunteers.

"The volunteers are usually made up of parents that work in the kōhanga reo to pay their fees really," he said.

Many elders also volunteer to support the children's reo Māori.

Procter said the Ministry of Education's funding system treated kōhanga as "parent-led", meaning that they have been funded at lower rates than "teacher-led" early childhood education - even though the kōhanga movement has its own training system that provides a qualification after three years of part-time study while working in a kōhanga.

"Currently they do three years of study and get a $1 pay rise," he said.

Davis said the new funding for the 2019-20 year was "a partial response to issues identified by the Waitangi Tribunal, who found in favour of a claim lodged by Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust (TKRNT) in 2011".

He said the Government, through the new Office for Māori Crown Relations Te Arawhiti, was still "working through the issues" identified by the tribunal in its 2012 report on the claim.

"Late last year some of the more pressing issues were recognised and these have been addressed in today's announcement," he said. "This is an example of how Te Arawhiti brings Māori and the Crown together."

The kōhanga movement began in 1982 as a way of helping to revive te reo Māori by using Māori-speaking volunteers from the community to teach preschool children.

However, the tribunal found that the movement had suffered ever since being brought under the Ministry of Education's general early childhood education regulations in 1990. Numbers in kōhanga peaked at 14,514 in 1993 and have fallen ever since to 8514 last year, the lowest since 1989.

The tribunal recommended "a more appropriate regulatory and licensing framework specific to kōhanga reo", plus a suite of other changes including "capital funding to ensure that existing kōhanga reo can meet the required standards for relicensing by the end of 2014".

Hekia Parata referred the Kōhanga Reo National Trust to the Serious Fraud Office. Photo / File
Hekia Parata referred the Kōhanga Reo National Trust to the Serious Fraud Office. Photo / File

But the Education Minister at the time, Hekia Parata, did not implement the recommendations because of allegations of financial irregularities by the kōhanga national trust.

She referred the trust to the Serious Fraud Office, which found in 2014 that the trust had not committed a criminal offence.

A separate review by Ernst and Young found that the trust's financial controls were effective, but recommended changes which the trust accepted.

Kelvin Davis says the next steps in the kōhanga reo claim should be completed by the end of this year. Photo / File
Kelvin Davis says the next steps in the kōhanga reo claim should be completed by the end of this year. Photo / File

A spokesman for Davis said the next steps in responding to the tribunal report should be completed by the end of this year.

"This is the start of what equality for kōhanga reo looks like," Davis said.

"Kōhanga reo are being sustained by voluntary work and lower than usual pay rates, and today's announcement will go some way to recognising the importance of volunteers and staff.

"Te reo Māori is a tāonga. We have a duty to protect it and kōhanga reo are essential to its survival and the first responders to teaching te reo Māori to the next generation."

Procter, a Gisborne social worker and former champion surfer whose three children have attended kōhanga, said the next step was to win recognition for the kōhanga qualification.

"We have 1500 graduates across the motu," he said. "Hopefully today's announcement brings some of those back into the movement."

"The current funding model doesn't really fit what we do in kōhanga, and the minister's acknowledgement is that you can't put the kōhanga reo within a mainstream kaupapa," he said. "It must stand on its own."