Where’s the funding for free education?

Parents understand that free education is a myth.

Since Tomorrow’s Schools the direct cost to parents of schooling has risen steeply in a “user pays” type trajectory. It has reached the point where some public schools receive more than half their income for day to day running from sources outside the government. The two most important of these are student fees (or “voluntary donations” as the government insists they are called) and income from foreign fee paying students.

Even middle-class parents wince when they receive invoices from schools these days.  My two sons who attend a local state secondary school generated a bill of close to $800. 

When I opened the envelope last week and saw the bottom line I had same sinking feeling I had when I glanced at the headline summarising an interview with new Education Minister Steve Maharey after the election last year. It simply said “Steady as she goes”. In other words it’s business as usual in schools – parents will face ever escalating fees, the disparities between schools will increase and the quality of education a school can provide will increasingly depend on the income of the community in which it is located.

Our education system is slowly being privatised from the inside with barely a passing nod to the “free” in free education.

This has much less impact on the middle-class drivers of Labour government policy but out there where it really hurts – in our low income communities – the disparities are keenly felt.

A simple comparison produced last year by former secondary school principal Stuart Middleton showed that a state school in a low income community has 25% less money per student than a similar sized state school in a high income community. This is despite the additional TFEA (Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement) funding which these schools receive from the government.

Isn’t this the wrong way round? Isn’t it blindingly obvious that the educational needs are far greater at the school in the low income community? Shouldn’t it receive more funding rather than less?

Is it any wonder that the single greatest problem with our schooling is the long tail of underachievement for children from low income communities?

Under pressure last year to increase funding for all schools the government neatly sidestepped and announced a review of school funding. The consultation process has begun but already the indicators point to a likely outcome which pits school against school. The Ministry of Education is suggesting that perhaps the problem with the current funding is in the middle decile schools which are missing out. This logic says that high decile schools can easily gain extra money from well-heeled parents and foreign fee payers while low income schools gain a greater degree of government funding and therefore it’s the schools in the middle which are languishing.

This is a useful policy position from the government’s point of view. It’s the equivalent of tossing a mangy bone to a pack of hungry dogs and smugly smiling at the result. Some tinkering with the allocation formula will then be recommended.

Instead of tinkering lets be bold and creative – abandon the crude decile system of school funding and move to funding based on the educational needs of the students.  Now there’s a radical idea! Or is it just common sense?

This system would take into account the size of the school roll with factors such as reading and vocab levels when students enrol, special education needs and transience specifically measured and funded above the basic operations funding.

It would mean big increases in government funding for all state schools and the end of schools invoicing parents for “donations”.   In fact schools would be prohibited from soliciting specified donations from parents.   It would mean a move back to the concept of education as a right of citizenship with uncompromising high quality delivered to all of our kids.

It would also mean the end of government funding for private schools.    

Currently some $40 million per year is poured into these schools with bizarre situations such as that in Auckland where wealthy and private Kings College receives $2 million in government subsidies each year to enhance its exclusivity while on the other side of the wire mesh fence – literally – is decile one Otahuhu College with vastly greater educational needs and which could make stunning use of this public money for children who need a big hand up.

Even without big changes in policy we have large government surpluses which should be invested in children.   As things stand it is the selfishness of the baby boomer generation which is stealing the future from so many of our kids.