It’s about time the myth of free primary and secondary schooling is put to bed, writes Bryce Edwards.

There are currently two trends making state schooling incredibly expensive for many families – the “voluntary” school fees charged to keep schools afloat, and the adoption of “Bring Your Own Device” policies whereby families are expected to provide the new tools of the classroom.

New Zealand’s primary and secondary school education is supposed to be free of cost for students – that is the legal position set out in the 1877 Education Act. The legislation is very clear, guaranteeing that basic schooling is provided at no cost to those enrolled. That’s still the theory, yet in practice this principle of free schooling has been slipping away over recent years, especially with the rise of “voluntary” school fees and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies in most schools.

The costs of these two factors means schooling is becoming more expensive, and a gap is opening up, with wealthy schools benefitting from parents who can afford to pay high school fees and buy top-of-the-line digital devices for their kids to use in the classroom.

So, what’s the Government doing about this?

The Government’s policy on “voluntary school fees”

It is illegal for state schools to charge school fees, but so far governments continue to put up with them, mostly by turning a blind-eye to the practice and accepting the fiction that schools aren’t insisting on payment or putting any pressure on families to pay up. The argument made by various politicians and officials is that these “donations” are completely “voluntary”.

In opposition, the Labour Party railed against school fees, but it was never clear if Labour would actually get rid of them. Instead of outlawing them, Labour came up with a rather “third way” solution in which schools would be allowed to continue to charge fees but any schools who abandoned the practice would receive a small compensation payment. In 2014 Labour’s promised only $100 per student, with this rising to $150 in 2017.

The most recent official Ministry of Education figures show that New Zealand schools rake in about $140 million per year from their “voluntary” fees. Labour budgeted to pay the schools about half of that amount – at the 2017 election they said they would pay schools about $70 million in compensation for the lost fees. Clearly much more than $150 per student is required when the Government honours their promise.

And when is this likely to occur? There are signs from the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins that the upcoming Budget will finally fulfil this election promise.

Hipkins indicated earlier that the policy was likely to be implemented some time in 2018 or early in 2019. So he seems to have already missed his own timetable on this. And we’ll have to wait and see what the Budget says about timing, with the possibility that replacement fee funding might even be introduced in stages.

The Government’s policy on “BYOD”

The Bring Your Own Device policy in schools took off over the nine-year term of the last National Government. Most schools – especially secondary schools – now require students to purchase their own devices for the classroom. Various newspaper reports say that tens of millions of dollars are being paid by families to buy these devices. Looked at on the individual level, one survey from a year ago showed that the average BYOD annual spend was $481 per child.

Sometimes the school even arranges the technology purchase through a selected commercial provider. There are also many reported incidences of schools helping arrange finance and insurance for parents – in order to enable the system to work. Otherwise, the taxpayer would have to take responsibility for this classroom technology.

This model of introducing digital technology to schools with families paying for the devices is relatively unique – New Zealand is said to be leading the world on this trend. Elsewhere devices are expected to be paid for by governments.

Of course, as with school fees, this approach goes strongly against the Education Act, as schools are effectively requiring students to pay for the modern and necessary tools of the classroom. Yet the Ministry of Education actually enables this policy to continue. And families don’t have the choice – they have to simply cough up, paying hundreds of dollars for devices.

The Labour-led Government appears keen to continue National’s parent-funded model. At both the 2014 and 2017 elections Labour put forward a policy in which the Government would pay for a greater proportion of the technology cost, but still leaving parents to contribute a weekly payment of about $3.50 for devices. However, it’s unclear whether the Government will actually progress this policy.

Some are now calling for family payments for digital devices to be made tax deductable – in the same way that fees paid to schools are. But the Government is unlikely to agree to this. After all, that would be admitting that BYOD is actually a reality, and politicians simply don’t want to recognise that the schooling system is no longer free.

The answer has to lie in the Government increasing resourcing for schools. The challenge for the Labour-led Government is to turn this around. But, as is often the case, at the heart of their problem is Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s steely resolve to retain his conservative fiscal policies.

Quite simply, the money and the political will isn’t there to fix these problems, and therefore the myth of free schooling in New Zealand will continue to be a myth for some time yet.

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