Talk-ED: Free education! From what?

 

The New Zealand education system was established in the Education Act of 1877 as one which would be universal, secular and free.

Well the first of these, “universal”, is more honoured in the breech than the observance if you consider educational outcomes.

The middle characteristic, “secular” is disputed from time to time and the cycle is hotting up again on this one. The intent of the Act was I believe that schools were to be non-sectarian, non-denominational. If that is true then it has mostly been achieved as integrated, private and special character schools that cater for those who want a specific set of views, values and practices promoted within their school.

But the last commitment, that schools would be “free” is a real mess. Once again we see reports that the community contributed $98 million to New Zealand state schools  last year through “donations” which is a euphemism for “fees” and “compulsory charges”. These fees are levied on parents who have little choice in the matter. On occasion the fees have to be up front to secure an enrolment.

All this is, is a contributor to the iniquitous provision of resources to schools.

Higher decile schools get away with charging quite high fees while towards the lower end of the decile slope the schools have to consider whether it is worthwhile even asking communities for this extra money when those communities are under such pressure to pay for the daily necessities of life.

Up against this is a report that a young lady has been denied a ticket to the School Ball because the family are in the defaulters list for the donation. This puts an interesting spin on both the word “donation” and on the explanations that the school wraps around its actions. With 2,600 students and a reported fee of $175, they have a potential donation pool of $455,000 so it is a kitty worth protecting. And they would not be any means have the highest fee/donation.

It probably doesn’t stop there. In most schools students pay for being in a sports team, the costs of curriculum related field trips, items of equipment. Others demand that students have a “device” such as an iPad. Schools clip the ticket on supplying uniforms and stationery that are probably in the interests of the schools rather than the parents.

Higher decile schools have the opportunity to attract international students while lower decile schools do not. The reasons for this are various and some of them are not very pretty. But a school attracting 50 international students could be making anything from $0.5 million (this would really be conservative) to sums in excess of $1 million. They do this using state provided resources such as rooms, staffing  (for these students generate most of their teaching costs at the margins), principal salaries (since overseas trips to “visit markets” are an important part of activity it seems) and so on.

Again it is an income stream that is not equitably available.

I have not the slightest issue with any of this – parents have a right to spend their money however they wish and supporting their students in this way is nothing but commendable.

But it does stick in my craw when I hear the argument that low decile schools have privileged funding. Such claims can only be made by those who either do not understand the realities of a low decile school and its high demand students or those who have a very narrow view of the education economy.

Education is “funded” by the community. They fund it indirectly through taxes, a portion of which is passed on to schools, and indirectly though taking up the costs of education incurred by their children which includes the payments made by way of fees (that are all but in name compulsory) and the myriad of other costs that must be met by students if they are to have the full range of opportunities offered by the schools.

The real funding of schools is the total amount of money available to schools to spend. And here an issue lies. About 84% of state funding delivered to schools is fixed-funding delivered in little packets with its use clearly labelled on the front. This is not much different from the way my mother would budget using an array of tobacco tins, each labelled, into which she divided up the monthly pay packet faithfully handed over unopened by my father on pay day.

So a school relying on state funding only has in reality very little money that the Board or the Principal have discretion over. Imagine then the delight when those extra sources of funding open up.

If high deciles schools complain about the level of state funding for their school I would invite them to try running a low decile school with high maintenance students.

As Fred Dagg would have said – “You don’t know how lucky you are!”

As for the unhappy girl that can’t go to the ball? You aren’t the first victim of the school ball phenomenon but that is a grisly story that can only be told late in the evening.

 

 

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