Chris Hipkins’ thwarted budget ambitions

Education is always a big spend area come budget time, but Chris Hipkins was left wanting when it came to early childhood education, donations and property, writes Laura Walters.

Every year, ministers go to the minister with the purse strings, hat in hand. It’s no surprise they ask for more than they get, as the government of the day balances competing priorities.

The details of the failed bids usually trickle out over time, with some detailed in proactively released budget papers, months later.

But last week, Education Minister Chris Hipkins was more than willing to tell the Education and Workforce Select Committee he asked for a whole lot more.

Hipkins has been spending up large recently, with $1.4b towards collective settlements for primary and secondary teachers, and area school teachers.

He was also given a heap of money for the Government’s fees-free policy – much of what wasn’t spent, and was repurposed in Budget 2019.

And while this Budget included $1.2 billion for school property as part of a new 10-year plan, and $265.6 million to roll out a new initiative to stop school donations for decile 1-7 schools, Hipkins said he wanted more in both areas.

And again, there was no funding for 100 percent qualified early childhood education teachers, or for lowering teacher-student ratios in ECE. Both are Government commitments for this term, meaning they will have to be funded in Budget 2020.

An end to school donations, almost

Hipkins has long had a policy to scrap school donations, and this year’s budget marked the first step.

But the rollout for a $150 per student grant – which schools can opt in or out of – to replace school donations, only went part way.

The $265.6m policy will be rolled out to decile 1-7 schools, beginning next year, with many of the lower-decile schools being better off under this plan.

However, the policy seemed at odds with the widely held belief that the decile funding system is not an ideal tool, and National education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said it created an “us and them” scenario.

In the latest update by Principals’ Federation president Whetu Cormick said leaders of decile 8-10 schools felt “short-changed” by being excluded from the offer.

Hipkins said he costed rolling out a universal policy, to do away with donations.

“I don’t think it will be any surprise to anybody that when you’re looking at the Budget you look at a range of different options for different policies.”

His finalised bid was for the partial roll-out but with the view to extend it to all schools in the future.

“We’ve made a commitment to do that in this term of government, so obviously I’ve put that up each budget round and that commitment’s still there."

“I’ve certainly never said we won’t be extending it to every school. You have to start somewhere, and this year’s budget puts it to decile 1 to 7 schools.

“As the decile system is phased out we will have to have a different system of doing this anyway,” he said.

Kaye said the Government had not delivered on Labour’s promise to incentivise all schools to end donations.

The restricted policy currently excluded about 700 schools.

“There are a number of upset schools who are going to be tens of thousands of dollars disadvantaged,” she said, adding that some schools had spoken out about the inequality to disadvantaged families in schools with high decile ratings.

Submissions on the bill to change the donation regime, which is currently before Parliament, closed on Sunday.

Early childhood education not a top priority

For the second year in a row, Hipkins has put in bids to meet the Government commitments to fully fund 100 percent qualified ECE teachers, and lower student-teacher ratios. For a second year, he was told to wait.

“We’ve made a commitment to do that in this term of government, so obviously I’ve put that up each budget round and that commitment’s still there,” Hipkins said, following the select committee hearing.

This meant the initiatives would have to be funded in Budget 2020, to meet the Government’s commitment and its strategic plan.

During the hearing, Hipkins clarified there was no funding, or contingency, in Budget 2019 for these initiatives.

He later said the 100 percent qualified policy had been costed to be between $300m and $400m, over four years – or per budget cycle.

National Party ECE spokesperson Nicola Willis said this showed the Government had “over-promised”.

Ahead of the election, Labour spoke about these as “urgent priorities”. “They’re not prioritising these issues now,” Willis said.

Government always had competing priorities, but this was disappointing from the perspective of the ECE sector, as they thought they could expect something in Budget 2019.

National Party ECE spokesperson Nicola Willis says the Government has over-promised and under-delivered on ECE initiatives. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Government did put an extra $131.1m over four years into increasing subsidies, in order to keep a cap on the potential fee growth for parents, while keeping up the quality of services and meeting rising demand.

Meanwhile, the number of complaints about ECE services was also on the rise.

Willis said more complaints meant more problems, and this was at a time when ECE centres were struggling to find enough fully qualified teachers.

Secretary of Education Iona Holsted said the rising number of complaints was a good thing, as it meant parents were demanding high-quality services for their children.

Next budget will be a big one for ECE, with the Government having to deliver on these promises, while figuring out how to address the ECE teacher supply issue.

Willis suggested the minister look to more on-the-job training, and qualifications for those with experience, in order to meet demand in a climate where ECE competed with primary for teacher supply.

Never enough money for property

Population growth will mean a big spend in education property over the coming decade, and in order to better plan spending, Hipkins has put in place a 10-year plan.

The $1.2 billion in this year's budget would go “roughly half way” to meeting the future roll growth projected out to 2030.

“In the case of property, I made it pretty clear I would happily take as much money as was on offer,” he told the select committee last week.

And while Hipkins would have liked more, there were also issues around capacity constraints, and how much the Government could actually spend when it came to property.

The important thing was to have a longer-term plan, in order to deliver on plans more efficiently and effectively. And this money would get the ball rolling for the next few years.

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