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A Rant Heard Around The Block

07 April 2004

A rant heard around the block

The minister of education's rant on school funding yesterday does nothing to enlighten the debate over the best way to achieve better educational outcomes for New Zealand children, according to Education Forum policy advisor Norman LaRocque.

Instead of addressing substantive issues that need to be debated, the minister's media release merely recycled discredited teacher union rhetoric on the topic of parental choice in education, Mr LaRocque said.

"Despite the rhetoric that all kiwi kids need a fair go in life, the minister's initiatives - school zoning (the Berlin Wall of educational opportunity), discriminatory funding policies and increasing central control over teacher pay - represent the greatest barriers to educational opportunity for the poor in New Zealand.

"The government's 'command and control' approach to the regulation and funding of New Zealand schools has done nothing but increase those barriers."

Contrary to Mr Mallard's claims, low-income families would benefit the most from the introduction of real parental choice in education, where choice is backed up by taxpayer funding.

The so-called 'rich' already have choice as they can afford private schools or move to an area with top-ranking schools, Mr LaRocque said.

The tightening of zoning laws has exacerbated 'creaming' of the best students and made selection endemic to the system. Only those families able to buy or rent in high-priced areas can attend the local school in those zones - a system of school selection by mortgage.

The move to a choice-based funding model hardly would hardly represent a radical departure from current funding policies, as opponents try to portray. Many of the elements of such a system are already in place:

* Kura Kaupapa Maori and integrated schools are funded at similar levels to state schools; and * Independent schools are funded on a per-student basis - a voucher by any other name.

Parents with children in early childhood centres and students at the tertiary education level already enjoy much greater choice and the funding systems at both levels are much less discriminatory (though still not equal) against private providers in those sectors.

The school sector stands out as the exception.

"Contrary to Mr Mallard's statement, parental choice would drive improvements throughout the school system, just as it does in other sectors. The evidence in favour of this view is clearly set out in Mark Harrison's recent book Education Matters," said Mr LaRocque.

"There is no justification for treating state and private schools differently. All schools that serve the public interest should be considered 'public' schools and treated on the same basis, irrespective of who owns the bricks and mortar," Mr LaRocque said.

Many other countries - including Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, some Canadian provinces and, to a lesser extent, Australia - treat public and private schools in a similar manner. The British Labour government and the 'Clinton' Democrats have both come out in favour of greater choice in schooling.

"Mr Mallard should explain why New Zealand's Labour Party continues to advocate the failed policies of the past, while other countries have moved to replace state monopoly provision with systems that encourage innovation and diversity, and deliver a better deal for all concerned - parents, children and teachers," Mr LaRocque said.


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