Opinion: Fully fund state schools – abolish school donations

2014

Associate Professor JOHN CLARK from Massey University’s Institute of Education suggests the Government has lost sight of free education and that there are more appropriate methods than parent donations to fund schools.

Of the 1939 Beeby/Fraser statement, Beeby was later to say: “the principle did lay down a general direction of desirable change and … any proposal to raise the cost to parents … would have offended against it.”

It was a good principle and served parents well. Schooling was free and deservedly so. Schools were funded to the extent that their needs were met from taxation paid for by parents, amongst others, with no requirement or expectation that parents would pay a second time around directly to schools. Those days are gone, and not for the better.

The state no longer pays its full share to the funding of schools but has progressively reduced its contribution even as costs rose. In turn, to make up the shortfall, schools have increasingly turned to parents to help them out. And so we have donations. Or are they donations?

We are very familiar with what donations are. Collectors for any number of charities and organisations are regularly seen standing on the street seeking donations in the form of notes and coins popped into a bucket or box. We, the passers-by, decide whether we will make a donation and how much we will donate. One person may put a two dollar coin in the SPCA container and another may give a five dollar note to the RSA poppy appeal. In short, the donation is freely given and gratefully received and no offence is directed to those who, passing by, donate nothing. No collector would ever dream of chasing after a non-donator and putting undue pressure on them to pay up.

School donations are a rather different matter altogether. The school makes it very clear that every parent ought to make a donation – even if they do not quite bring themselves to say that parents must pay up. Moreover, the school determines exactly what the donation shall be. It might be a very small amount, or at the other end, quite a large amount. Very little room is left for the parents to decide how much they will pay. Parents who do not pay are not left alone but are reminded that they have not made their voluntary donation of X dollars, even to the extent that some schools have regarded the donations as debts that have been passed on to debt collectors to collect.

Since state schools are not permitted to charge compulsory fees for general educational and curriculum activities (although fees can be extracted for extracurricular things such as school balls and school uniforms), then they dress up the demand for money as a donation – but this fools no one. School donations are not donations at all and should not be described as such.

Interestingly, some schools (but not many of them) – often the poorest schools in the poorest communities with the poorest parents – have done the right thing and abolished donations altogether.

The response to the idea that schools should not require parents to make donations is that without the additional income that parental donations bring, the school would be worse off. Possibly, but not necessarily. There are other ways of generating revenue that rely more on the generosity of parents and others to give in a voluntary way. To be sure, they may be more time-consuming, but where these involve the participation of students and their parents, there is likely to be a far greater sense of community and commitment than forced donations could ever bring about.

A measure of innovation and entrepreneurship in practice would certainly sit comfortably alongside expressions of innovation and entrepreneurship contained in The New Zealand Curriculum. Would this be enough to satisfy the needs of schools? Probably not. So how are schools to make up the difference? Well, a return to the Beeby/Fraser position would be a good starting point of reasserting the principle of free public schooling and living in accordance with it rather than paying it lip-sevice.

That the state, in the form of the present Government, sees fit to pare back the funding of schools from an earlier, more generous time, certainly sits unhappily alongside its ‘finding the money from somewhere’, to the tune of $359 million, to cover the costs of its Investing in Educational Success initiative. To pay selected teachers and principals from between $10,000 and $50,000 on top of their current salaries to do things that just may raise student achievement seems to be a gross waste of tax-payer funds. Going into the election, any party that promised to divert this money directly to schools so parents would no longer be required to make donations because donations were made illegal would surely get their support.

How might the funding be distributed to schools? Well, here is a thought. Let one state school seek parental donations, the wealthiest school in the country. Let total donations for that school from all sources, divided by the number of students enrolled, set the benchmark for the distribution of state funding to all other schools. If, for argument’s sake, the per-student amount was $2000, then every school in the country would receive an extra $2000 per student.

Now, that money could be used to make a real difference in so many schools across the nation rather than it going into certain teacher’s bank accounts. Think what your local school, which your children attend, could do with this extra money. Think how it could be used to the benefit of all the children at our schools in raising their achievement. So, why don’t we do it? Good question. Ask your local candidates contesting the forthcoming election.


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