On John Roughan's confusions

John Roughan's column on why paying "voluntary" school fees is a good thing confuses me. I think that's because it is very confusing.

Tim already has posted his response to John Roughan's column on Labour's policy to allow schools to replace "voluntary" school fees with a $100-per-student payment. I've also got some thoughts on it, to be expressed in a classic quote-and-response fashion.

Before I embark on that task, however, I'd note that Roughan's column strongly suggests an answer to the question, "who wrote this particular NZ Herald editorial last week?" It's beyond me why the Herald continues with the pretence of anonymous editorials purporting to speak "for the paper" when it's so transparently obvious that one of its own columnists is taking the opportunity to push his own personal barrow. And if its columnists are going to write such editorials "for the paper", the least they could do is avoid subsequently recycling them in their "named" columns. That just seems a bit ... lazy.

Anyway, Roughan starts off his own named column with a bit of faffing about over the challenge that "voluntary" school fees apparently pose to the Labour Party, while grudgingly admitting that Labour's policy proposal isn't a completely daft one. Then he tries to find some reason not to support it, anyway:

Schools that turned down the option would need to be confident of raising much more than $100 on average from parents because the state grant would be paid for all pupils. Not all well-off parents, sadly, are willing to pay a fee. They would be even less willing if they knew the school had passed up $100 from their taxes.

The grant would probably succeed in ending charges for all but the richest schools and that, I think, would be a pity.

Well, that's a claim about consequences. But it doesn't seem to be based on anything other than Roughan's gut. Roughan himself goes on to note later in his column that Labour "expects all schools in deciles 1-7 would opt for the grant while about 70 per cent of those in the higher brackets would continue to charge fees." So, does Roughan think  Labour's analysis is wrong? If so, why? Or when he says "all but the richest", does he mean the 70% of decile 8-10 schools that Labour expects will still demand "voluntary" donations? Because, given that Labour's own figures show that 20% of all schools (being 70% of 30%) will not to take up their offer, the term "all but the richest" seems a bit of an exaggeration.

When my kids started school the household's budget did not have much to spare but I was surprised at my reaction to a fee. Having not previously given the subject much thought, I found I was glad to pay. Not much was more important than the kids' education and it felt good to contribute.

Well, of course. The sense of contributing to your kids' education is a wonderful thing. But to conflate "contributing" with "giving a one-off payment of money" seems ... somewhat odd. What about volunteering your time to help with school activities? Running the chocolate wheel at the school fair? Indeed, as Roughan goes on to mention, he himself became a member of his childrens' school's board of trustees. So given that his own experience of "contributing" goes far beyond cutting a cheque, why identify this most transitory of methods of participating in the school community as being so important?

Furthermore, if it feels so good to give some money to his kids' school, then nothing in Labour's policy appears to stop Roughan from continuing to do so. If he walked into the school office and gave a purely voluntary donation to it, then that will still be fine. It's just that the school won't be able to ask him to pay "voluntary" fees. And if Roughan needs the prompt of a letter from the school telling him to give it money to think about doing so, then that's his issue.

I was also glad there was no choice. Legally it was a "voluntary donation" but the principal's letter made it gently clear we would be letting down our children, other people's children and the school's aspirations for their education if we didn't pay our share.

Compulsion made the charge more respectable. The school claimed to be offering additional value for the money, it was not asking for charity. We were buying something, not "donating" which you do for nothing in return.

Right - so it felt personally good to someone who had the money and wanted to give it that everyone else with kids at the school was being socially shamed and emotionally pressured into doing likewise. But, and here's the significant point, what would it feel like to be a parent who can't make the payment? Or a parent who does make it, but only by scrimping, saving and sacraficing elsewhere? Why should Roughan's smug sense of satisfaction that he's giving money and that everyone else is been pushed to do likewise get to trump the sense of shame or financial strife that others must suffer?

Furthermore, what exactly is it that Roughan is "buying" from the school? As Tim says in his post:

But education is not a commodity to be bought. It's a right as a citizen of this land, something we are rightly proud of. All children, no matter who they or their parents are, deserve a top class education provided for them. It's not a tin of baked beans to be bought.

And even if the school is "selling" Roughan his kids education, why is it so good that there is no choice about parents having to "buy" it? These schools are in a monopoly position - the law says you must send your kids to a school (given that home schooling just isn't really an option for most). So is Roughan really saying it is a good thing that they are able to use that legal compulsion to dictate to parents what they have to pay for the service they provide? That seems an odd position to take.

The only jarring note in the principal's pitch was the standard public service lament that government funding was insufficient. Finite funds could never be enough for education's infinite possibilities. It was a pity he should resort to an argument that would reinforce the resolve of those who refused to pay.

Hang on. Is Roughan accusing the principal of lying to parents about the donation's necessity? What exactly does Roughan think that these school fees are for? In my experience (which I've confirmed with a friend currently serving on a board of trustees), the reason (most) schools require them is that the basic operational grants they get from central government just don't cover the things schools have to do for pupils. And so if all parents (or, a sufficient majority of them) refused to pay their "voluntary" donations, the school wouldn't be able to do its basic, legally mandated job (let alone explore "education's infinite possibilities") without incurring a financial deficit.

However, let's say these fees really are demanded in order to fund nice-to-have added extras to the school's activities, above and beyond the basic cirriculum and its requirements. If so, why exactly should there be extreme moral pressure brought to bear upon parents to pay them? If I (or, rather, someone who thinks this way) simply want little Jimmy or Tammy to get the no-frills basic education that the State already funds through taxation, why does the school get to demand that I must help fund the bells-and-whistles of exploring "education's infinite possibilities"? 

So it seems to me that Roughan can't have it both ways. The only reason that these "donations" should be virtually compulsory is because without them the school cannot function (in terms of meeting its duty to teach the basic national cirriculum). Then it can be argued that there is a general moral responsibility on all parents to ensure the collective enterprise is able to function, given the fact that resources otherwise available simply are not enough to fund it. But if that is the case, he can't credibly claim that we have a generally free system of education in New Zealand.

These people, who were not poor, fiercely resented school fees because they had paid taxes, or so they said. They were probably as fierce in avoiding taxes wherever they could. But they paid taxes, they said, on a promise of "free education" and it should mean exactly that.

Yeah. Sure. I actually agree with their stance (absent the bit about avoiding taxes - I also agree with Roughan that those sorts of people are just the worst). It pisses me off that my kids' primary school, which runs on the smell of an oily rag, would completely fall over if I and others like me failed to "voluntarily" give it money. Or, rather, it pisses me off that it's made to look like "my choice" to do so. If the Government really wants me to pay for my kids' education, then let them bite the political bullet and make that their explicit policy so that I can punish them for it at the ballot box. But they won't. And so we get the current "free, but not really" reality.

Now, I'm not such a strong adherent to principle that I'm prepared to look my kids' principal in the eyes and say "sorry - I know it makes your job impossible, but I'm not going to pay extra to let the school run." But someone who is prepared to do so? Well, it seems to me that they've got a perfectly respectable moral basis for doing so.

Free education to my mind means free for the children of anyone who cannot afford to pay, or refuses to pay. It is never the child's fault and schools take reasonable care to ensure other pupils are unaware. Sitting on a board of trustees, I saw the principal's disgust with wealthy free-riders he would not identify even to us.

So ... free education means your child should receive comprehensive and quality schooling without having to pay any extra money towards it. But the school also ought to be able to use extreme moral pressure to make all but the most impoverished families pay towards providing that education. I'm starting to get confused.

Free education is a priceless social policy, fundamental to the equal opportunity New Zealand aspires to provide. We would be a poorer and unhappy country without it. But I doubt the founders of the welfare state intended that "free" should preclude the possibility of parents paying for more.

Now I'm getting really, really confused. To return to a previous question, what exactly does Roughan think that these "voluntary" fees are for? If they are really paying for more than the basic quality education all New Zealanders have a right to, then why are parents so obligated to pay them? But if they aren't - if they presently are a necessary part of providing the current level of comprehensive and schooling that all children have a basic right to receive - then how can you credibly call our system of education "free"?

Furthermore, the "founders of the welfare state" didn't preclude parents paying more if they so chose. Nothing stops a parent who wants to financially help his or her local school explore "education's infinite possibilities" from making a purely voluntary donation to it. (An example - the family of some kids who went through my kids' primary school donated the school a life-time pass to the local ecosanctuary as their way of thanking it for their kids' time there.) Equally, parents who want the full bells-and-whistles option always can send their kids to an integrated (or even fully private) school. But does Roughan really think that Michael Joseph Savage would have been happy with the present reality of state schools having to rely on parents paying an annual fee for each of their children to provide the basic quality education that is the necessary basis for their future advancement? I think not.

Human nature values what we pay for and undervalues what comes free. This country is fortunate that family doctors fought so hard to retain fees at the birth of social security. Britain is now trying to introduce part charges to reduce the waste of doctors' time and medicines at public expense.

Now things are just getting plain silly. To begin with, the claim that "human nature values what we pay for and undervalues what comes free" is ridiculously overreaching and simplistic. Roughan could see this if he simply asked himself if really means to claim that it is "human nature" to value having sex with a prostitute more than with her or his spouse or present lover. (This is, I suggest, not a discussion he actually should have with his spouse or present lover.) Or, to put it in a less crude fashion, what does he value more - a tie that his child gives him as a Christmas present, or a tie that he buys for himself for $70? (Again, a discussion he might choose not to have with his children.)

And to use the example of charging fees for health services as some sort of support for schools charging fees is just wrong. Putting a price on seeing a doctor is a rationing measure: having to pay a fee will stop people seeking to use medical services as much as they would do if they were completely "free". But, of course, fees may cause people to actually undervalue health care, in that financial pressures mean they fail to see a doctor when they really need to. Which is why successive New Zealand governments have actually moved to remove doctors' fees for young people, in an effort to make sure they get the care they really need.

The charging of school fees has nothing to do with the desire to ration primary and secondary education (tertiary education is another matter entirely). We don't have a problem of kids getting "too much" education in New Zealand. If anything, we have the opposite problem. So Roughan's conflating paying a fee for seeing the doctor (which kids in NZ don't do anyway) with paying a fee for attending school is just ... wrong. Plain wrong.

School fees have the additional benefit of helping forge a shared parental commitment, though that might not be so where very few of the parents could afford to pay. Schools in those places need and deserve the extra grant that Labour proposes.

Well, paying school fees may have some small incidental benefit of helping to foster such a commitment, but my own personal experience of handing over a cheque to the school's principal at the start of the year didn't exactly create such a spark in me. And I can honestly say that in all the interactions I've had with other parents, not once has it crossed my mind "Hey! We all gave the principal a cheque! Aren't we a great community!"

No, it was the work day cleaning the school's gutters and weeding gardens that created that feeling. The school camp at Aoraki-Mount Cook. The end-of-term get-togethers to celebrate the work the kids are doing. The conversations at the school gate as we wait for the kids to finish up classes. And so on. Take away the start-of-year cheque and would any of that change one little bit? No. No, it would not.

It expects all schools in deciles 1-7 would opt for the grant while about 70 per cent of those in the higher brackets would continue to charge fees. All would retain the right to charge for specific activities, which National thinks would defeat the policy's purpose. Fees are different, though. They are a parental investment in a school.

No. Fees are a necessary top up to allow a school to do what it legally has to do, but the Government presently doesn't pay for. Let's not sugar-coat that reality with metaphysical bullshit.

Labour has done well to remember that.

Right. Labour's so worried about upper-middle-class backlash (with the Herald in the vanguard of that charge) that it's left room for those that use "voluntary" fees as a means of operating as quasi-private institutions to continue to do so. Politics is the art of the possible.

But for most schools and most parents? Getting rid of the lie that we are choosing to financially help out our local school so that it can set about exploring "education's infinite possibilities" would be a victory for the truth. And that's a good thing.