Memo to Labour: What about free education?

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.