While the education sector has begun a serious and important discussion about how to better resource schools, the reanimated zombie of bulk funding seems to be scratching its way out of the grave.
Following indications from Minister Parata that a review of school funding is imminent, the sector has begun developing an evidence base and principles for change. Without pre-empting anything, it’s clear that equity is going to be one of the crucial principles that have to underpin any changes.
Meanwhile, the Act Party, has come up with policy that could be titled Return of the Living Dead. Consistent with their commitment to ignoring evidence and sticking to the failed classical economic theory that led the world straight to the Global Financial Crisis, they want to go back to the 1990s and give school boards the power to opt into bulk funding.
Framing it slightly differently this time – Act’s alternative budget contains this:
Expanding the Partnership School model by allowing state schools, if their boards choose, to convert to the Partnership School funding model, thereby giving greater options and a wider range of choice for parents and their children.
Here are just three of the reasons why bulk funding schools is a dumb move.
1. Risks when boards and principals make bad decisions.
At the moment a badly run school can get into financial problems, but because the large part of funding for the basic work of the school goes directly to salaries, it means that a school is unlikely to completely collapse from not managing the finances well, and teachers (notwithstanding Novopay) will continue to get paid and come to work. This protects students from bad decisions that may be made by boards and principals.
2. Undermines collective agreements
The collective agreements unite the teaching profession, and provide stability and coherence to a highly fragmented sector. Policy initiatives such as support for beginning teachers (induction and mentoring), new roles to share good practice and so forth, will be out the door. The collective agreements strengthen the teaching profession – without them we would be open to far more casualization and rolling back of pay and conditions. A less attractive teaching profession means fewer teachers, and we end up with unregistered teachers or the Teach First example.
3. Removes public responsibility
Through the way it resources schools the state takes a certain degree of responsibility for students, targeting particular students it knows are at risk and so forth. Certain resources are provided not in terms of money but in terms of central support – these are ‘cashed up’ in charter schools. The responsibility for students is undermined if the state simply hands over a wodge of cash and says ‘do whatever it takes to achieve these narrow outcomes’.
Just got this from a colleague who is a veteran of the 1990s bulk funding campaign:
The big argument here is that the ops grant is bulk funded. Over time it has been underfunded and even the most efficient fund managing boards have been forced to ask for more and more money from parents to keep running their schools. They don’t have to ask for more money for teachers because salaries are not bulk funded. And as their bulk funded operations gran becomes progressively smaller in real terms they do not have to make trade-offs between whether to cut costs on classroom resources or on the quality or number of their teaching force – like the hospitals are forced to do.
In the 1990s bulk funded schools generally hired more new teachers (and kept hiring them as they burnt them out) while centrally resourced schools continued to hire the more experienced teachers. Or they hired fewer teachers to save the money – which meant fewer options and larger classes for students, and higher workloads for teachers in an already stressful and demanding job.
Ironically boards that went into bulk funding often argued they had to do it to make up for under-resourcing of the operations grant through a transfer from their salaries fund to their ops fund.
We can also see the effects of bulk funding on the employment of school support staff (also bulk funded) where any increase in salary costs tends to drive down the number or hours of people employed in support roles in schools as schools balance their budget. The alternative is to not increase the wages, which over time drives down the quality of the people boards can afford to employ in those roles.
Ultimately central resourcing does cost a government more than bulk funding, but it ensures that boards can always select the best person not the cheapest to put in front of the students and therefore it buys a better quality workforce and gives a far greater guarantee to every child that they will have well-qualified and experienced teachers.