A smart government knows that when a particular policy hits the brick wall of public opinion, you quickly retreat and try to find another way around.

In 2012 the government hit just such a brick wall when it tried to increase class sizes to save $174 million from the education budget over four years. The move was unambiguous and easily understood by furious parents who could see their children’s education would suffer in a larger class with less one-on-one teaching.

The u-turn was humiliating, and the Prime Minister suggested at the time that the government had only reversed the decision because of the backlash: not because parents and teachers had convinced them of their error.

Confusing

Fast forward four years and the government has announced a proposal for a “global budget”. It’s not unambiguous and easily understood by parents. It involves a bulk-funding-style split of cash and “credits” for school running costs and for teacher salaries, which are currently paid centrally by the Ministry of Education. Schools could choose how to split a mix of cash and credits for teachers, both generated on a per-student formula. At year’s end, schools could cash up unspent credits. The word “flexibility” has been bandied about a lot.

This is all quite confusing. However educators, who are used to juggling school budgets, immediately saw where it could lead. We already had the perfect example in the early childhood sector, which has been bulk funded for many years. Centres receive a lump sum to cover salaries and running costs and have to make decisions about teacher-to-child ratios and the number of qualified teachers they employ.

Risks

When you consider that per-child funding for ECE has been frozen for the past five years and many centres have had to struggle with ratios and qualified teachers, the risks of global funding become obvious.

What’s more, for the first time in 17 years, schools’ operational funding was frozen this year. If schools were also responsible for budgeting for teacher salaries, the implications of falling behind inflation are clear – there would have to be fewer teachers and larger classes, which is exactly what the government tried to introduce in 2012.

As it is, the parents on school boards of trustees are going to have to make some hard decisions this year about their support staff hours, because admin staff, teacher aides, technicians, librarians and others are already “bulk funded” out of the operations grant.

Centralised funding of teacher salaries is what ensures that schools can maintain class sizes and curriculum breadth regardless of what happens to their operational budget. Under a global budget, that assurance is gone.

At stake

So serious is this threat to the quality of our children’s education, that NZEI and PPTA have taken the unprecedented step of calling 50 nationwide all-of-union meetings during school time. NZEI members, educating children from birth to 18 years old, are coming together to discuss the government’s review of education funding, of which the proposal for global funding is a major part.

As a group, we will decide our next steps to ensure fair and equitable education funding for all children, particularly those with special learning needs and disadvantaged backgrounds.

These meetings will cause some inconvenience to parents and students as schools will be affected for a half day. However, there is something far greater at stake. We refuse to sit quietly and wait for this very eagerly promoted “proposal” to become policy. The time to speak and be heard is now.