Offer of $100 instead of fee can lift poor schools and leave the rich free

The Labour Party may be going into this election at a low ebb but it is coming up with ideas that are new, interesting and fit comfortably in the consensus that has generated our economic success.

I'm not talking about Trevor Mallard's moa. It is a pity anyone is talking about moa, or Mallard, in a week that his party has announced an imaginative policy on school fees.

School fees are a dilemma for a social democratic party. They undermine the principle of equality that inspires public education, but not many in Labour's caucus are so hard left that they want to forbid parents from contributing if they can.

It would be easy to legislate against state school charging fees. Labour's solution is more subtle. All state-funded schools would be offered an extra $100 a year for each pupil on the condition that the school does not ask parents for a fee. The deal would be gladly accepted by those that cannot raise that sum from parents, and declined by schools that can raise more.


In effect, it would be an addition to the decile funding that already tries to compensate schools in poorer places for the fees others can charge. The policy would neatly reduce inequality without restricting the rights of the better-off. It is hard to see much wrong with it, except that it might be too effective.

Schools that turned down the option would need to be confident of raising much more than $100 on average from parents because the state grant would be paid for all pupils. Not all well-off parents, sadly, are willing to pay a fee. They would be even less willing if they knew the school had passed up $100 from their taxes.

The grant would probably succeed in ending charges for all but the richest schools and that, I think, would be a pity.

When my kids started school the household's budget did not have much to spare but I was surprised at my reaction to a fee. Having not previously given the subject much thought, I found I was glad to pay. Not much was more important than the kids' education and it felt good to contribute.

I was also glad there was no choice. Legally it was a "voluntary donation" but the principal's letter made it gently clear we would be letting down our children, other people's children and the school's aspirations for their education if we didn't pay our share.

Compulsion made the charge more respectable. The school claimed to be offering additional value for the money, it was not asking for charity. We were buying something, not "donating" which you do for nothing in return.

The only jarring note in the principal's pitch was the standard public service lament that government funding was insufficient. Finite funds could never be enough for education's infinite possibilities. It was a pity he should resort to an argument that would reinforce the resolve of those who refused to pay.

These people, who were not poor, fiercely resented school fees because they had paid taxes, or so they said. They were probably as fierce in avoiding taxes wherever they could. But they paid taxes, they said, on a promise of "free education" and it should mean exactly that.


Free education to my mind means free for the children of anyone who cannot afford to pay, or refuses to pay. It is never the child's fault and schools take reasonable care to ensure other pupils are unaware. Sitting on a board of trustees, I saw the principal's disgust with wealthy free-riders he would not identify even to us.

Free education is a priceless social policy, fundamental to the equal opportunity New Zealand aspires to provide. We would be a poorer and unhappy country without it. But I doubt the founders of the welfare state intended that "free" should preclude the possibility of parents paying for more.

Human nature values what we pay for and undervalues what comes free. This country is fortunate that family doctors fought so hard to retain fees at the birth of social security. Britain is now trying to introduce part charges to reduce the waste of doctors' time and medicines at public expense.

School fees have the additional benefit of helping forge a shared parental commitment, though that might not be so where very few of the parents could afford to pay. Schools in those places need and deserve the extra grant that Labour proposes.

It expects all schools in deciles 1-7 would opt for the grant while about 70 per cent of those in the higher brackets would continue to charge fees. All would retain the right to charge for specific activities, which National thinks would defeat the policy's purpose. Fees are different, though. They are a parental investment in a school.

Labour has done well to remember that.

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