My two cents on the sort of dramatic policy Labour will need to win over voters. Think interest-free student loans and go from there

Labour says tomorrow it'll be announcing a new education policy regarding schools. I have no idea what it is, but it's prompted me to quickly write this post that I've been meaning to write for months - what I'd announce if I was Labour looking for a circuit breaker.

It seems this will be education week for Labour, as it promises tomorrow's announcement will just be "the first" of its educations initiatives we'll see this week. The party certainly needs a big policy win to convince voters to take another look at it and shake off the losers aura it has around it at the moment.

If National's canny but underwhelming roading announcement is anything to go by, it seems John Key will be trying to promise as little as possible this campaign, relying on his analysis that there's no great mood for change at the moment and that New Zealanders are happy with a 'steady as she goes' approach this soon after the Global Financial Crisis.

That opens the door for Labour to show greater ambition. Its message has to be that National lacks the vision to take New Zealand (and New Zealand Inc) to the next level. And the foundation of any success as a country is education. There are any number of investments that could be made science and the like, but this suggestion is purely political; an interest-free student loan scheme-type high impact vote winner.

The simple premise is that 'free education' is in New Zealand's DNA. It's one of our proudest legacies as a nation. Clarence Beeby's education system was a world leader, summed up in Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser's famous quote:

"Every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has the right, as a citizen, to a free education of a kind for which he is best suited and to the fullest extent of his powers."

Tapping into its base and the frustration of the middle classes, Labour should promise a return to truly free education. That is, an end to school fees. The stories come out every year, such as this in 2012 saying parents collectively spend around $250m a year on fees, or this from 2013 when it was shown the most expensive schools were approaching $1000 per annum or this story in January showing that we can pay $35,000 on fees over the school life of a child.

It's a long way from Fraser's dream but it's a dream - like home ownership - that runs deep in our national psyche. Parents would be over the moon to think they could save that much money each year, they'd instantly understand the policy and see virtue in it. And if the cost is around a quarter of a billion a year, that's expensive but inside the self-imposed spending cap. National's committing $359m over four years just for some super teachers, so why not three times that for entirely free education.

Polls of school principles this year show that insufficient operating grants are there number one concern.

The policy would face plenty of fishhooks - would you have to ban schools from taking donations or limit them to certain things? There would be plenty of devil in the detail. And the down side is that it's not terribly progressive; lower decile schools already keep their fees low, so the middle would save more than the poorest.

But imagine the power of heading into an election campaign promising "a return to free education". That's the kind of thing voters could get behind and Labour needs as something as dramatic as that to get back in the game.

Comments (26)

by Antoine on July 01, 2014
Antoine

Fantastic! Take my tax dollars and give them to middle-class breeders! Got my vote!

(Disclaimer: I do actually have kids)

by Kat on July 01, 2014
Kat

Totally agree Tim, and lets not taint it with the polarising term 'free education'. Just call it simply NZED,  and anyone that disagrees is not worthy to be a New Zealander and can leave the country peacfully, and the sooner the better.

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

Hi Kat

Why would anyone call it 'free education'? It's not free; it's taxpayer funded.

And what do you propose to do to those of your enemies who refuse to leave the country peacefully?

A.

 

by Alan Johnstone on July 02, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Such a policy would be dreadful politics, those paying the highest school "donations" are National voters anyway. There's no votes there.

As for the rest, it's additional tax and spending to subsidise the better off.

Much better to target the funding at decile 1 - 4 schools where it's needed. Better politics too, the money goes further when it's spread amongst a smaller group of people, these are people more sympathetic to the Labour message anyway.

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

Labour's biggest problems seem to be the quality of its candidates and the quality of its coalition partners. Neither of those problems will be solved by any policy announcement

A.

by Richard Aston on July 02, 2014
Richard Aston

Good idea Tim , not sure Labour will do it but its a good idea especially at Tertiary level.

 

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Kat, no idea what NZED means!

Antoine, I think you've got a point about some candidates, don't agree about partners. But (and this is to Alan too), it's silly to debate whether it's "free" or not, everyone knows what it means. Surely one of the most basic things a state can and should do is to use its collective resources to ensure all children get a high quality and cost-effective education. So "tax and spend"? Using that line on education will only backfire.

Really, free education is a basic right as a citizen without fees and donations.

 

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Honestly, I knew nothing of Labour's plan. But this has just been released... Not exactly on the scale I was suggesting (and perhaps indicative of Labour's timidity at the moment), but on the same page:

 

Labour will end ‘voluntary’ school donations

Labour will provide an annual grant of $100 per student to schools that stop asking parents for “voluntary” donations to help fund their day-to-day spending, Labour Leader David Cunliffe says.

“New Zealand has long prided itself on our public school system under which core spending is government funded. It’s unfair to teachers, boards of trustees, parents and kids to expect donations to subsidise running their schools.

“Some schools have adopted dubious tactics to get these so-called voluntary donations including repeatedly sending children home with letters and, in one case, giving children ‘donation paid’ tags to attach to their bags.

“Labour does not believe children should be discriminated against and ostracised because of their parents’ financial situation.

“Schools received $97 million in donations in 2012. The higher the school’s decile, the bigger the donation parents were asked to give. The average donation to a decile one school is $59 but that rises to an average of $278 for decile 10 schools.

“School donations are particularly hard on low income communities with decile one to three parents contributing $10 million a year.

“Under a Labour Government, schools that agree not to solicit donations will be granted $100 per student each year. Schools will still be allowed to charge activity fees.

“Labour is committed to ensuring that New Zealand has a modern, affordable and high quality education system,” David Cunliffe says.

by Alan Johnstone on July 02, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Nice to see Labour has gone with my position and targeted it at the lower end.

Maybe there is some hope for them after all....

by Ian MacKay on July 02, 2014
Ian MacKay

Today's first question in QT:

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE to the Prime Minister: Is he still committed to "ensuring our schools are working for all students", and is he satisfied his Government has done enough to ensure that every child has equal access to a low-cost public education?

So a decile 2 school with 200 pupils would get $20,000. I hope that that would be as well as the decile funding already given to Low decile schools.

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

Probably not a bad policy, perhaps a vote winner.

Is it "the vision to take New Zealand (and New Zealand Inc) to the next level"? It is not.

A.

by Katharine Moody on July 02, 2014
Katharine Moody

Wow - good guessing, Tim. Agree with Alan that the targeting is very smart - schools seeking less than $100 per annum in donations presently actually get a funding rise.

One of our children recently got a donations request from the local kindy their child attends. Is this commonplace as well?

Elizabeth Warren explains this issue regarding school districts/zoning has had the effect of raising the accommodation costs of middle income families in the US by an enormous amount over their childless counterparts who don't need to consider the quality of local primary/secondary education in their accommodation decisions.

by Richard Aston on July 02, 2014
Richard Aston

Tim you must be well tuned into the zeitgeist. 

Labour's donation subsidy plan is a start but could be a lot more couragous. I reckon if they seriously tackled student loans - do away with them would be good - they would pick up a large amount of the non voters.

 

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

> I reckon if they seriously tackled student loans - do away with them would be good - they would pick up a large amount of the non voters.

Sounds like an enormous, shameless bribe to me.

> [Free education is] a good idea especially at Tertiary level.

Sounds like another enormous, shameless bribe to me.

A.

 

by Alan Johnstone on July 02, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Richard, a big spend up here by Labour was be political suicide. There's no public desire for it yet. Its still "steady as she goes time". Key would slaughter them if they tried.

Also factor in that any Labour tax and spending plan needs to leave around $1bn a year unallocated for bribes for Winston and pet projects for the Greens. 

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

Hey, I have an idea.

How about Labour promises a $20,000 cash grant to everyone with a surname that begins with S?

This could tap deep into the pool of undecided Smiths, Singhs and Stuarts out there.

A.

 

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

I will stop taking the piss now

What Labour needs is to convince voters that a left wing government is capable of running the country

Most voters do not believe that a Cunliffe / Robertson / Norman / Turei / Peters / Harawira / Harre lineup can do that

No single policy announcement will change this situation

A.

by Kat on July 02, 2014
Kat

Tim, NZED was just my acronym for New Zealand Education.

by Antoine on July 02, 2014
Antoine

Kat

If you can think of a good acronym for Labour / Greens / NZF / Internet / Mana, that may also come in useful - as the long form is a bit of a mouthful

A.

 

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Aw shucks, it's the day job, rather than the zeitgeist. And luck! Yes the targetting is clever, but I'm not sure how well it works at the mid- top end. If a school is getting $250/year in donations, will they just not opt in? So is this really just a way for those in low decile communities to not have to pay school fees? Quite clever, but not as universal or as visionary as it could have been. Or corageous as Richard said.

by Ian MacKay on July 02, 2014
Ian MacKay

Note how quickly the online Herald slips the Donation Policy down off the front page. Good on Adam Bennett for doing a post on the policy.

by BeShakey on July 02, 2014
BeShakey

Presumably the administrative costs and the fact that no school will have 100% of parents paying the 'voluntary' fee will mean that some schools asking for more than $100 will still be better off taking the money. Plus, I expect there will be some extra push back from parents who receive a request for a voluntary fee from a school that chose to reject extra $ from the government.

Overall, my feeling is that parents hate these requests for voluntary fees, and Labour will get brownie points for doing something about it, regardless of the details. The big question is will it translate into people changing their vote to LAbour.

by Alan Johnstone on July 02, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Remember that "donations" are tax deductable anyway. a $300 donation only really costs $200.

Payment rates vary, even at my local decile 10 school it's less than 70%. I'd imagine that number pluments elsewhere.

It's probably a good deal for any school charging less than $200.

It's another classic redistributive play from Parker, along the same lines of keeping the kiwisaver tax credit with a universial scheme. It's another direct discal trasnfer from higher to lower incomes.

 

 

by Alan Johnstone on July 02, 2014
Alan Johnstone

* fiscal transfer

 

ps, an edit post button would be great.

by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, it's called redistribution and is kinda the cornerstone of democracies with welfare states. Y'know, so those with a tougher start in life have opportunities, we encourage social mobility and that sort of stuff.

by Andrew Osborn on July 04, 2014
Andrew Osborn

This is Labour not thinking things through once again.

OK so they give the schools the $100 per pupil.

Then will the schools behave and stop requesting additional funds from the parents?

Will there be no more requests to assist with sausage sizzles or money requests for special trips and additional facilities?

So in summary - we'll hand schools $100 per pupil and it will be instantly absorbed in the schools accounts as if it never existed. And the donations requests will keep on coming.

 

 

 

 

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