School choice and the ACT Party

Reading the Herald over lunch, I found an article about potential future heightened pressures on the rolls of Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls’ Grammar.

But what struck me was the stance of the local MP, and leader of the ACT Party, David Seymour. In addition to these roles, Seymour is also

  • Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education
  • Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Regulatory Reform

The ACT website says of ACT’s policy on schools and pre-schools

ACT believes that education at this level is an investment in human capital that the government rightly makes.  However, the delivery of the service has been captured, at the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels at least, by a providing bureaucracy that limits choice and innovation for the purpose of self-preservation.

ACT believes that state education funding should be seen primarily as an asset of the parent and child, to be used at a school, public or private, of their choice.  ACT would diminish the role of the Ministry of Education in allocating resources, separate the property ownership role of the Ministry from the operations role, make Boards of Trustees more autonomous in their  governorship of schools, introduce better mechanisms for State and Integrated schools to expand and contract according to demand, and increase the subsidy to private schools to the extent that it is expenditure neutral.

To be sure, ACT has only a single seat, in effect gifted to it by the National Party, but where is the evidence of this sort of approach in the stance adopted by Mr Seymour?  ACT has pursued the cause of so-called Partnership Schools, but these are not really a vehicle for parental choice, since the only people who can set up these schools are those targeting “underachieving children”.  That is one worthy goal, but it is quite different from a framework that facilitates widespread parental choice on schooling.  Reasonable academic achievement isn’t the only thing parents value.

What does Seymour have to say about the pressures in the Grammar zones?  Is he suggesting abolishing the zones?  Is he suggesting establishing new excellent state schools?  Is he suggesting allowing new integrated schools to be established easily?  Is he suggesting practical ways to treat “state education funding…primarily as an asset of the parent and child”.  The answer, of course, is none of the above.  And it gets worse, as he is reported as toying with an idea that students in new houses would not be included in the zone?  And this from a party allegedly favouring more responsive housing supply.

Seymour’s response seems to be primarily about protecting the choice, and the property values, of one small group of among the highest income New Zealanders, in Mount Eden, Parnell, Newmarket, Remuera, and Epsom.  And it is not as if this stance is new.  As the Herald reports, he has previously come out opposed to intensification in his own area, and opposed efforts of neighbouring schools to extend their zones in ways that overlap with the Grammar zones.  ACT rightly criticises corporate welfare, and has also been fairly critical of the growth of the welfare benefit system, but there is gaping inconsistency right at the heart of their home territory.  It looks a lot like protecting elite privilege.  Many people would like to send their kids to one of the Grammars –  or schools like them.  But a rapidly decreasing number can afford the house prices in those suburbs and the dominant state provider doesn’t build any more.  Why would one take Seymour seriously on any proposed policy when he is not willing for his policies to start at home?

I think he is right about the education bureaucracy, but it isn’t only the provider bureaucracy that seems driven by self-preservation.  The Under-Secretary for Education and MP for Epsom seems to have gone the same way.  ACT is likely to be at its best when it is attacking, not defending, established advantage, and when it is campaigning to democratise access to excellence and strongly advocating competition, even if it means some transitional costs fall on some of their own supporters.  Thank goodness that governments that abolished import licensing – which had provided many very comfortable livings –  did not take the ACT approach.  I’m sure Seymour (and his party colleagues), knows that his position is untenable when put up alongside party policy.  And so I wonder what he really stands for?  Allowing bars to open more easily on the mornings of a few rugby games is all well and good, but beginning to make progress on allowing real school choice for the mass of middle New Zealand is a rather more important, and more enduring, issue for the longer-term.

These issues don’t just arise in Auckland.  In the weird world on education bureaucracy, my son is zoned out of the closest state boys’ school (which we don’t particularly want him to attend) because for decades the Ministry of Education has failed to build even a single state school in what is generally regarded as New Zealand’s largest suburb.

New Zealand already has a limited quasi-voucher system in the integrated schools system.  For some parents, there is an effective choice, between a neighbourhood state school and a (slightly more expensive) integrated school.  But in practice the choice is limited: most of the schools are Catholic, and Catholics are supposed to attend Catholic schools and (reasonably enough) there aren’t many places for those from other traditions.   And rolls are capped.  The integrated schools model was a far-reaching reform of the Third Labour Government in the 1970s, in response to a funding crisis in the Catholic system.  More than 10 per cent of New Zealand children are educated at such schools, and (unlike the so-called Partnership Schools) there seems to be little debate around their performance –  it is just recognised that some parents will prefer one sort of school, and others will prefer different types.  But why not use the integrated schools model as a basis for a real extension of choice?  Allow proprietors –  existing, new, for-profit, and non-profit –  to set up new schools, as they like, and provide per capita funding accordingly if they can attracts parents and students.  For most parents –  especially with more than one child – private schools aren’t a real choice –  the financial burden is just too heavy.    And perhaps there will never be much effective choice in most small towns. But most of our population lives in our larger cities –  half in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch alone –  and in those places (and no doubt most of our larger provincial centres) effective and genuine affordable choice could be made to work.

Yes, no doubt there would be some duds set up.  There are some disastrous schools now.  No doubt there would be some excess capacity built.   But that is akin to an argument that we’d be better off with one supermarket in a suburb than two, to avoid the wasted extra physical capital, or the old days of licensing when a new entrant might have to prove there was insufficient capacity, rather than simply being allowed to take a risk and open up.

Yes, there are lots of other details to work out  The state has some legitimate interest in ensuring a minimum standard of schools, but it has much less interest in that than parents have. The state, its bureaucrats and ministers, gets to make mistakes over and over again.  But each child only goes through school once: the stakes are that much higher for parents and kids than they are for the education bureaucrats and politicians.

None of that necessarily helps with what should happen in Auckland right now.  Someone is going to miss out, and political choices will (openly or not) decide who.   That is a  problem for Mr Seymour, and perhaps one he should have thought harder about before campaigning for school choice and reduced land use restrictions in suburbs like Epsom.  Real choice rarely comes from the elites –  they aren’t, generally, the ones with most to gain from it.

12 thoughts on “School choice and the ACT Party

  1. In fairness to Seymour, his 1 vote didn’t get all of ACT education policy into practice. He was lucky to get the deal on partnership schools and get to put in in as an Under-secretary. So you would not expect to see any evidence at all that ACT policy on parental choice was actually being implemented.


  2. It is starting to look cheaper sending your kid to a private school rather than to pay the mortgage on a expensive school zone property.


  3. Act do have a conflict between their desire to let people do what they want (school of choice, reduced RMA restrictions) and what the Epsom voters want (retain ‘ownership’ of school access through zoning, retain ‘ownership’ of limits to intensification through RMA restrictions).

    One reason I could accept from Act for part of this contradiction is that it would be unwise for them to throw the Epsom voters’ ‘ownership’ of school access under the bus until such time as anyone can open a new school in that area in the way that Act would like. But they will probably never directly say that lest they be accused of not practising what they preach.

    I would also add that David Seymour wasn’t actually quoted in that NZH article, they were Kirsty Johnson’s words. They may well summarise David Seymour’s views, but as Kirsty Johnson has been accused of having a left-wing bias I’ll take her comments with a grain of salt.


  4. An answer I have heard ACT suggest is to encourage current school boards to request their schools become partnership schools and therefore use this educational method to provide quality education.


    • Interesting idea. It would certainly increase flexibility for existing schools. I’m a bit sceptical of the viability of single independent schools (as distinct from “chains” like the Catholic or Anglican schools), but perhaps it could be made to work.


  5. Re your second para, yes I think I agree. I’d have had more respect for him if he’d said ‘look you all know that ACT is a party that favours choice, opportunity, competition etc for everyone. But we aren’t there: the govt won’t build new state schools in the area, won’t allow Grammar to clone itself, won’t allow new integrated providers to set up. That means there are no easy ways forward”. Not very committal perhaps, but at least not inconsistent with your own policies/philosophy.

    The tensions around Epsom highlight why, if there really is a place for ACT in the political/parliamentary spectrum, it would be much better off as a list party. But there is the small matter of trying to find 5% support.


    • Kirsty Johnson cannot be relied upon to accurately “quote” anything David Seymour may or may not have said. She is antagonistic towards ACT and Seymour and ACT’s education policies. The place for ACT in the political/parliamentary spectrum is to protect private property rights, choice and freedom – and to keep National honest and behaving like a centre/right party rather than like Labour lite.


      • I agree, although if what she reports Seymour as saying/considering is roughly right (and I accept that that may be an open question), it doesn’t sound very centre-rightish at all.


      • Re Kirsty Johnson, agreed.
        Re ACT, agreed. But that is also the problem. David Seymour is trying to protect the implied property rights of Epsom voters (school zoning and intensification-resistant RMA/council).
        To Michael’s point about ACT suggested positioning on this, agreed. Good luck trying to make a sound bite out of that.


  6. Shock, horror! A politician might just care about the votes of those (NIMBYs) in his electorate! Jeez the naivite of this blog is pretty staggering sometimes.


    • As I noted, Seymour’s stance wasn’t surprising – but a reflection of him being gifted a seat where two of his party’s key policy areas clashed directly with the views of many of his constituents.


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