Poor Kiwi kids should not have to rely on charity to get ahead at school

A recent New Zealand Herald article showed how children and their families in the Manaiakalani Education Trust cluster of low-decile schools are benefitting from philanthropic funding to provide low-cost digital technology and learning opportunities they simply could not otherwise afford. The story is inspiring and heartwarming. It appears to be making a real difference to these children’s and parents’ lives.

According to the Trust, philanthropic funding “creates the ability to experiment”. As a society, we should applaud all genuinely altruistic philanthropic efforts to provide “proof of concept” for educational initiatives that set out to benefit the poorest kids in our society.

Ordinary New Zealanders give generously to charity, ranking fifth in the World Giving Index, according to a report by the Charity Aid Foundation. A 2011 study commissioned by Philanthropy New Zealand reported that 58% of philanthropic giving was personal, 36% was by trusts and foundations, and 6% by business. The total amount given to charity in 2011 was $2.67 billion, equating to 1.35% of GDP.

However, for all the considerable public benefit that charitably funded educational initiatives like Manaiakalani, KidsCan and Ngatahi provide, philanthropy cannot be permitted to absolve government of its responsibility to fully fund a free public education that adequately meets all children’s, families’ and communities’ needs through Vote Education.

Most charitable distributions in New Zealand are local and regional, not national. If initiatives like Manaiakalani are proven to be effective it must surely become the national government’s responsibility to adopt them and make them universally available to poor children throughout the country.

The basic role of government is to make society fairer for everyone. Ensuring good educational opportunities for all is core government business. To not provide public funding for and universal access to an educational initiative that has proven to transform children’s lives is morally bankrupt.

Certainly, experimenting on the scale of Manaiakalani is expensive, and success cannot be guaranteed in advance. Partnerships between business, philanthropy and government, as in the Manaiakalani experiment, are one creative approach to finding solutions to overcoming inequalities of access to education. But relying on philanthropy to continue to do the core business of government, to fill the gap left by inadequate government baseline funding, echoes the worst of Victorian times.

A paradox, of course, is that many of today’s venture philanthropists and private businesses are notorious for their extraordinary efforts to avoid paying tax in the communities and countries where they reside. Global corporations with household names regularly export revenues from the country in which they were earned to the lowest tax-rate jurisdictions they can find. Similarly, super-rich individuals hide their money in family trusts and offshore tax havens.

In order to court global capital, and attract inward investment, governments engage in a competitive race to the bottom to lower the cost of doing business in their country. For the corporations and their obscenely remunerated executives, this means ever lower tax rates; for domestic workers, it means ever more precarious, minimum-wage employment and not enough money in the hand for basics, let alone extras, like digital devices for children to enhance their schooling.

Personally, I would much rather that those who want to contribute to the public good should start by paying their fair share of taxes to government. Let democratically elected government fund public education priorities on behalf of the great majority, rather than permit a wealthy oligarchy to choose when they want to be part of the community and wider society, and which public educational interventions are worthy of their attention. 


John O’Neill is a professor of education at Massey University and an education spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group.