A rich prick’s budget

In a budget dominated by threats to downgrade New Zealand’s credit rating and projected budget deficits for the next decade it was expected National would produce a predictable, conventional budget.

Finance Minister Bill English abolished promised tax cuts and halted contributions to the Cullen Superannuation Fund for the next 10 years.

These measures were sensible and largely uncontroversial. The only criticism I’ve seen of the tax cut decision is from the right-wing fringe in the Mt Albert by-election where a Libertarian billboard bleats “Where are our tax cuts you bastards?”

Halting contributions to the national superannuation fund is also a sensible move because national superannuation can and should be paid from taxation rather than relying on borrowing to invest in erratic markets to fund retirement incomes.

So how did social sectors such as education fair in the budget?

There are a couple of good decisions. Education Minister Anne Tolley has extended the funding for 20 free hours of early childhood education to Kohanga Reo and Playcentres. These are usually not “teacher-led” centres and so missed out under Labour policy. However they provide a quality alternative for children and parents so this decision is welcomed.

Also to be welcomed is the $51 million for children with special education needs who are approved for ORRS (Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme) funding. This will alleviate pressure on the SEG (Special Education Grant) and give a bit more breathing space for schools which accept children with special needs. However the big problems with the funding mechanisms for kids with special needs remain unaddressed.

But the big educational winners in the budget were private schools. These schools educate less than 4% of our kids but gained $35 million in additional funding whereas the other 96% of our kids received just $320 million extra. A simple bit of maths shows the budget delivered around three times the amount of additional funding to private schools compared to public schools. This is a disgrace especially when one considers the biggest problem facing education is the long tail of underachievement at schools in our low-income areas.

New Zealand’s children in middle class and high income areas compete with the best anywhere in the world but we have very poor outcomes where economic deprivation is greatest. The long tail of underachievement is the long tail of poverty where Maori and Pacific kids are over-represented. This relates directly to the dramatic increase in inequality in New Zealand these past 25 years.

National’s adding icing to the educational cake at our wealthiest private schools should be no surprise. They did the same in the 1990s so that by 1999 when Labour took over, private school subsidies had reached $40 million. Labour maintained this high level of subsidy so that Auckland’s Kings College for example, where Prime Minister John Key is a parent, has received approx $2 million per year for the last ten years. Not happy with this Key says he wants to increase these subsidies to $70 million per year so that the annual Kings College payout will rise to $3.5 million.

On this basis one might think our highest education priority was the state of the cricket pitch at Kings rather than the educational opportunities for Maori and Pacific students on the other side of the wire mesh fence which separates Kings College from Otahuhu College, the largest decile one school in the country where educational needs are much greater and which could do wonders with any extra funding.

The government’s claim that this increase will make private schools “more affordable” to New Zealand parents is a joke because private schools exist precisely because they want the “right” to select the students they want and keep out the likes of the brown proletariat while state schools must accept all students eligible to enrol. Maintaining high fees is another way to keep the riff-raff away.

Parents of children at state schools must now pay twice for education. Firstly through their taxes to maintain high quality public schools and secondly to pay subsidies for Michael Cullen’s “rich pricks” to send their children to socially-cleansed educational environments.

Elsewhere in the Budget the government signalled a $50 million cut to teacher staffing budgets for public schools (equivalent to 700 teachers) from 2010 and will slash 80% from the funding for community education classes. These are outrageous cutbacks. Tens of thousands of New Zealanders every year take part in community education classes described disdainfully by the Minister as “hobby” classes.

So while ordinary kiwis will struggle with extra costs for school and community education the government has given more taxpayer largesse to an already privileged minority.