A four million dollar scheme to send teenagers to private schools was scrapped by the government this week, in a move strongly criticised by some in the sector.
As part of their confidence and supply agreement, the National government partnered with ACT in 2009 to introduce the Aspire scholarships, which fund places for up to 250 secondary students from low-income households to attend private schools.
The scholarship provides up to $16,500 to each student towards fees and course-related costs.
Associate Education Minister Jenny Salesa framed the decision as another step in creating an equitable public system.
“The millions of dollars spent on the scheme each year would be better spent strengthening our state and state-integrated schools. That’s the best way to ensure education works for all children,” she said in a statement.
“Our goal is to make every school an excellent school so that every child gets the opportunity to succeed.”
The decision affects only new applicants to the scheme. Students already attending a private school on an Aspire scholarship will still receive their full entitlement until they finish school.
A publicly released cabinet paper shows that of the students who applied for scholarships in 2017, 17.4% were already attending private schools.
Of those who were allocated scholarships between 2009 and 2017, 42.5% identified as Pakeha/European, 29.5% Maori and 28.7% Pasifika.
Recipients are selected by ballot, and due to the self-selecting pool of entries, are most likely to come from families that value educational achievement and would therefore be likely to achieve success in a state school.
Independent Schools of New Zealand (ISNZ), the representative body for most of New Zealand’s private schools, has strongly criticised the scrapping of the scheme.
In a media release, the organisation recognises the scholarship was only available to a limited number of students, but has been life-changing for those individuals.
“The government is removing the opportunity for these students to benefit from the best possible education and achieve far beyond their expectations,” says ISNZ executive director Deborah James.
“These scholarships have not only changed the aspirations of the individual students, they have had a significant influence on the lives of families and how they view the education of their children and future generations,” she says.
Alwyn Poole is director of the Villa Education Trust and manages two charter schools. He says he is “astounded” by the decision, and questions the premise that the money is better spent on the public system.
“Taking away a scheme like this is not only heartless but it also based on false premises,” he says.
“Firstly that education funding is a zero sum game. These 250 having an opportunity does not, by definition subtract from others. The education budget as a whole has been growing.
“The second, very poor, premise, is that you shouldn’t help a few students if you can’t help them all. Imagine if Oskar Schindler (and thousands of other heroes of humanity) actions were based on that amoral premise.”
As strong advocates for public education, the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) supports the scrapping of the scholarships, expressing concern that they hinged on the assumption that public schools are inferior to private ones.
“PPTA opposed the creation of the Aspire scholarships from the outset,” says PPTA president Jack Boyle.
“There’s a wealth of global evidence that shows when controlling for student characteristics, private schools do no better than public.
“The very name ‘Aspire scholarships’ is deeply problematic, implying that going to your local school is somehow lacking aspiration.”
Boyle outlines the inequitable funding model and compares it to a lottery.
“Funding a tiny number of self-selecting students at a much higher rate than anyone else (around double what it costs in public schools) is very troubling.
“New Zealanders wouldn’t stand for it if there were a lottery that allowed some to receive double the superannuation rate – or randomly picked some people to receive private health care rather than public,” he says.
“What’s more, the Aspire programme was never evaluated. The data we got a few years ago showed that students on the scholarship did, on average, no better than the general population.
“Because of this lack of evaluation, it just looked like a back-handed subsidy to private schools and is not justified.”
Want more of the latest sector news, information, opinion and discussion straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletters https://educationcentral.co.nz/subscribe/