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Funding the taonga of state schools fairly

It’s only fair and proper, so to speak, to fund state schools fairly and properly. Why is that?

It’s only fair and proper, so to speak, to fund state schools fairly and properly. Why is that?

Universal state schooling is part of the social contract between government and civil society. Civil society agrees to pay taxes and to use public services in return for which elected government agrees to provide public schooling adequate to meet the development aspirations and needs of civil society.

Our Education Act guarantees universal access and free provision of state schooling. This seems like a great deal for, and in, the public interest and for many decades in Aotearoa New Zealand it has indeed proven so in practice. Compared with earlier centuries and decades before universal free provision, more children and young people now receive a world class schooling that gives parents and whānau confidence that their children will have improved life chances compared to those of their own generation.

However, the social contract starts to unravel when one or other party is not fully committed to it (services are not fully funded or fully utilised). At present in New Zealand, the Government is tangibly and visibly testing the limits of its social contract obligations to ensure that schooling remains genuinely universal and free – that is, when all children irrespective of circumstances have the opportunity to attend an equally good, equally well-staffed and equally well-resourced and equipped school.

This government testing of the limits of the social contract is problematic because a state schooling system can only flourish to the extent that it is regarded as both a public service and a taonga.

While a public service can be conceptualised bureaucratically as the achievement of a balance between effective schooling and efficient schooling concerns, or what is both acceptable and affordable, a taonga carries accumulated cultural wisdom as a gift from generation to generation and has to be cherished for that in and of itself, come what may. Moreover, state schooling also exemplifies society’s best wishes for its children, and for the quality of life, work, wellbeing and citizenship they will enjoy in the future. The taonga of state schooling is an intergenerational public good, nurtured by one generation as a form of both paying back to previous generations and paying forward to future generations. Governments mess with a taonga like state schooling at their peril.

Funding commitments through Vote Education are one tangible demonstration and indicator of a government’s commitment to the social contract and to the children who benefit from it.

In 2016, we have witnessed two fundamental and very crude financial threats to the taonga of state schooling: (i) the proposition to introduce global funding as a means of decoupling central funding and institutional spending; and (ii) the introduction of learning support as a vehicle for further targeting , or rationing, of existing Vote Education funding.

Both threats are based on what Treasury and the Minister of Finance proudly refer to as a ‘social investment approach’ to public services provision. The premise underpinning a social investment approach is that government’s role is to limit expenditure on services to what is affordable within current revenue.

Government sees this sharing of social contract obligations as a good thing and, for its part, claims to be able to deploy the now capped amount of state funding by targeting it more precisely to those students who are deemed to be ‘at risk’ of not achieving at school.

Somewhat ironically, these new indicators of risk have little to do with classroom teaching and learning processes but a lot to do with parent characteristics and family contexts. The irony is that governments since 2003 have based schooling policy and funding decisions almost exclusively on the basis that if we want children to achieve we should ignore these contextual factors and concentrate on improving the quality of teaching in all classrooms. Not surprisingly, initial modelling has shown that social investment funding approaches will simply redistribute existing capped funding from a larger number of older children currently in receipt, based on actual educational need, to a smaller number of younger children based on potential risk of educational need. It is focused on contextual not educational risks.

As a consequence, chances are that we will fund significant numbers of students who will succeed irrespective of the presence of risk factors, and not fund significant numbers of students who will not achieve despite having no risk factors. The taonga of state schooling as a public good will be lost in the process.

Past generations of kiwis will see their investments in their children and grandchildren’s life chances wither for want of nourishment and protection, while future generations will look back and wonder how on earth this was allowed to happen.

Professor John O’Neill is the Director for Massey University’s Institute of Education. His research expertise centres on the relationships between education policy and teachers’ work and learning. Professor O’Neill is a strong advocate for social equity in education. In 2012 he was awarded a Teacher Education Forum of Aotearoa New Zealand career excellence award and a Massey University Research Excellence Medal.

Massey University Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa University of New Zealand