Schools are under fire for forcing parents to pay voluntary fees - and punishing children whose parents don't pay up.
But an East Auckland principal says free education is a fallacy and parents should feel pressured to contribute.
The Weekend Herald has obtained documents under the Official Information Act revealing cases brought to the attention of the Education Minister.
They include complaints of voluntary donations being chased up by school boards using "bullying tactics", optional expenses being deemed "compulsory" and schools breaching the Education Act by singling out students whose parents did not pay.
One Auckland school employed an agency to call parents at home and urge them to pay.
Owairoa Primary School in Howick was referred to the Ministry of Education. It got a "blasting" and was told it had no right to be "debt collecting".
But principal Alan McIntyre said he had just received external legal advice which proved the school was within its rights.
Parents should feel pressured to pay the school donation as it is an important part of the school budget, he said.
"Free education is a fallacy. The fact of the matter is we need it to pay the teachers. I hope they [parents] realise how important it is for them to pay - and it is."
The documents, from February 2007 to October last year, reveal other schools breaking the rules, including:
Students being sent home for the day.
Money taken directly out of a parent's account at the school without permission.
A school telling parents the voluntary donations are "compulsory options fees".
A student being denied access to a course.
Under the Education Act 1989, every person who is not a foreign student is entitled to free enrolment and free education at a state school from their fifth birthday until January 1 following their 19th birthday.
But schools argue they could not function without top-up donations from parents.
Education Minister Anne Tolley told the Weekend Herald that schools could not force parents to provide voluntary donations. But she said such contributions help many schools to provide a wider range of educational experiences for their students.
School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said it was no secret that government funding was inadequate - in many cases it was lost on administration, power, water and rates.
She said boards often felt "damned if they do, damned if they don't" in sending out a plea to every parent to contribute a set donation to their school's budget. But the onus was on parents to help the school to deliver the quality of programmes it aimed to.
Over the past two years parents had spent a huge amount of time fundraising to top up what should essentially be the normal day-to-day programmes, Ms Kerr said, and funds were going to be even more scarce this year as the credit crunch hit. "It used to be that parents fundraised for the 'nice to haves', now they are being asked to fundraise to subsidise what's happening in the classroom."
The president of the NZ Parent Teacher Association, Amanda Meldon, said her group had heard of schools barring students from activities if fees were not paid, and even telling parents their child would miss out on curriculum items that were actually funded.
She said debate often arose over the discrepancies between schools of different decile ratings. Parents questioned why a low-decile school should be funded to take pupils on trips while a decile-10 one had to pay in full even if there were parents who were struggling.
"There are always extra bits to pay for at school such as stationery, trips, camps, visitors," Ms Meldon said.
"These can all add up, especially for larger families. Most parents don't want their children missing out on these events so they pay, even if it means stretching the budget."
PAY UP OR ELSE
Tactics used by schools include:
* Owairoa Primary School in Howick employed an agency to call parents at home urging them to pay.
* Central Hawkes Bay College deducted funds from a parent's school account.
* Cashmere High School in Christchurch charged for a "compulsory" workbook for compulsory subjects, printed at the cost of the school.
* Brockville Primary School in Dunedin forced parents to pay an up-front consolidated levy rather than on a "user pay" basis.
* Feilding High School sent home a student for unpaid fees. Thirty students walked out of school in protest at the principal "putting the heat" on parents to pay fees.