School funding – An issue of social justice

Last week, a somewhat surprising announcement suggested the current method whereby New Zealand state schools are funded is in for a major overhaul. This system has revolved around the concept of ‘decile funding’. Effectively, based on certain socio-economic measures (such as employment status of parents, number of people living in a household, and real estate values of the neighbourhood) schools are allocated a ‘decile’ grading or ranking. Decile One schools are located in disadvantaged areas or areas of low socio-economic status, while Decile Ten schools are typically located in areas where real estate values are high, parents are in employment and homes are not overcrowded.

The funding rationale is quite straight-forward and strives for equity, with low decile schools receiving proportionally higher rates of funding than higher decile schools, whose parents are better positioned to top up the school’s government funding. And while this idea is sound in concept, it has developed some significant flaws: for example, in the context of the promotion of a competitive ethos by various neoliberal education policies (such as school zoning and self-managed schools), the decile ranking has become a proxy for achievement. In other words, high decile schools are considered to be ‘better’ schools able to produce greater success in national examinations or attainment of National Standards; while low decile schools are assumed to be struggling schools characterised by dysfunctional behaviour and image.

In a bizarre twist, the decile system has become part of the marketing furniture in the hands of real estate agents. Nothing sells a house like being in a ‘grammar zone’ with nearby high decile schools (for example). The decile system is not related to the quality of teachers or the quality of educational provision at any given school, yet many families living in proximity to a lower decile school will avoid the school, and endeavour to enrol their children in more distant, but higher decile, schools.

This funding system, though apparently equitable, fails for several reasons, including the points above, but also because it fails to recognise nuances. A good case in point was the secondary school at which I worked for many years. As a Catholic, state-integrated school, it was able to draw students from outside the neighbourhood. In the particular historical trajectory of this school, once based in a neighbourhood increasingly populated by migrant Pacific island families, it evolved from being a mainly European boys’ school to one that was a mainly Pacific Island boys’ school. In the 1990s, the area became gradually gentrified, the working poor moved out of the area, and an increasing number of the students bussed in. The school demographic did not change, but the material ‘value’ of the area was greatly enhanced. Thus, while the school continued to draw on the working poor, the local real estate values skewed the decile ranking, so that what ought to have been a Decile One school (because its students were from poor homes) was in fact a Decile Three school, consequently attracting a lower level of funding.

So, this system does require overhaul, and perhaps the government should be applauded for reviewing this funding formula. Some of the changes it considers, however, are not unproblematic. For instance, it is suggested that funding be tied to individual students within a school who come from homes dependent on benefit; or from homes with a history of incarceration; or from homes with a child abuse history; or from homes where the mother has no formal qualification. Inevitably, questions are raised concerning the possible stigmatisation of students, and the question of data gathering.

Are teachers and schools going to be burdened with gathering this information? The government is claiming its Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links data from a long list of government agencies including corrections, health, education and the tax department, will be doing the work. That may be so, but it seems a long stretch of a generous imagination to believe that schools (ie teachers and administrators) won’t be responsible for increased accountability and measurement tasks.

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