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September 25, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Free to Choose

One of the greatest tragedies of the recent scandal at Hutt Valley High School was not that it took four years for the indecent assaults to be made public.

Rather, it was that if those boys wanted to flee from the disgusting abuse, their capacity to go to another school was severely restricted. New Zealand’s system of school zoning means that to go to the school of your choice you have to be lucky or rich enough to live near one that is good.

The current system is easy to understand. The government builds a school and then, on a map, draws an area around it: anyone living between the lines gets into the school. Anyone outside those lines typically goes to another one. If all schools were equally good, this would be fine, but they’re not. There are some, like Macleans College in Auckland, that are routinely recognised as being great, with high levels of academic achievement, teacher ability and parental involvement. But others continually fail their pupils. Even schools close to good schools can fail, as was the case with the dysfunctional Selwyn College, which, despite being relatively close to Macleans, had its entire board replaced by the Ministry of Education.

Every parent in New Zealand wants the best for their kids, and some really don’t want to send their children to one of the ten South Auckland schools that have a uniformed police officer on duty during the day. They can try to send their kids to a better school in a number of different ways. First, they can move to an area of the city that is in a good zone. Unfortunately for them, many other parents have had this idea, and the increase in demand for houses in that area raises the price beyond the reach of most. In Auckland, for example, one side of a road that is in the Grammar zone has an average house price that is $100,000 greater than the side that is out of zone. This is madness.

Alternatively, parents can send their kids to a private school, like Kings College, Scots College or Christ’s College. This is, of course, another choice unavailable to the vast majority of parents due to the costs involved. Finally, they can enter their children on the ballot of a good school, a system through which a very small number of children from outside the zone can attend that school. Every year there are hundreds of applications to Wellington College for out-of-zone children. Figures obtained by Stephen Whittington, a candidate for the ACT Party, show that last year there were 208 applications to the ballot. Of these, five were accepted. The remaining 203 children are now in worse schools.

In the absence of school choice, there is a captive market, where schools are safe in the knowledge that 99 per cent of the students that live in their area will be attending no matter what. This guaranteed income stifles improvement and innovation: even if the schools get better, the funding available to them doesn’t improve, and they can’t capitalise on students wanting to attend them. Worse still, the number of places in successful schools is often specifically limited by the Ministry of Education in order to sustain the rolls at others. That is, good schools are prevented from taking more students to ensure that bad schools are full of pupils.

It is an absolute outrage that poor parents in New Zealand have little choice but to enrol their children at schools that are worse than those rich parents can send their kids to. There are few areas in which those with low incomes are as discriminated against than schooling. The Government spends around $8,000 for every student in the country on education each year: this money should simply follow them to whichever school they want to attend. Schools would then have an incentive to improve: no board or principal wants to be responsible for the loss of $8,000 when parents, fed up with their taxes funding a terrible education, send their kid elsewhere.

Good schools will no doubt be oversubscribed to—Auckland Grammar at the moment probably can’t hold many more than its current 2500 students (although they have indicated that they would expand as much as possible if they were not subject to an enrolment scheme). However, with every new student bringing with them $8,000, and with no legal restriction on their capacity to expand (as is currently the case), they could build a new wing to accommodate more.

This wouldn’t enable everyone to attend Auckland Grammar; some children would still miss out. But now, unlike before with their captive markets, schools face competition pressures. In order to get as many of those valuable students, they will have to improve, innovate. Some schools will push academic achievement to attract enrolments; others, a focus on the arts or sports. The point is this: if schools continue to fail their students, parents should have the choice to send their children elsewhere. Even if it isn’t their first, second or even fifth choice, anything is better than a school that maintains order only through police presence, or a school that hides for almost half a decade tragic cases of sexual abuse.

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