Schools are offering $100 meal vouchers and early payment discounts to encourage parents to pay "voluntary" fees, and threatening public shaming of those who don't.
Despite primary and secondary state education being nominally free, parents contribute more than $100 million a year in fees that cannot be legally enforced.
Principals say it is a struggle to keep schools up with 21st century expectations with what funding the Government provides. Total operations grants received by the country's 2500-plus schools in 2012 was $1.2 billion, excluding tax.
A Dominion Post survey of more than 25 schools in the lower North Island yielded an overwhelming consensus that government funding was not enough to provide even the basics, and fell far short of paying for increasingly essential computer technology.
That meant that "schools are being forced to ask parents for more and more in the way of ‘donations' and a lot of parents are struggling to meet these demands", Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said.
Ministry of Education figures show $103m was paid in school donations in 2011, compared with $99m in 2010 and 2009, and $75m in 2008.
"I've seen reports of schools doubling the donations they ask for in recent years," Hipkins said.
"If the Government don't fund them adequately, they just have no choice."
At Masterton Primary School, only about 30 per cent of parents paid the voluntary $40 fee, principal Sue Walters said.
This year she planned to publicly thank those parents that paid by naming them in the school newsletter.
"That way, if you're not on the list, get a conscience."
Tamatea Primary School, near Napier, encourages early fee payment by offering the chance to win a $100 meal voucher or a 10 per cent fee discount.
Principal Wiremu Pearson said the incentive resulted in about 60 per cent of parents paying the $28-a-child "donation" last year, up from 27 per cent five years ago.
Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said it was becoming harder and harder for schools to meet increasing expectations on present funding levels. "IT - man, that sucks up money."
Of Rongotai College's $1.2m operations grant, only $24,000 was assigned by the Education Ministry for information and communication technology, principal Kevin Carter said. But it cost the school up to $150,000, especially to maintain ultrafast broadband.
Consequently, the school asked parents for a $225 donation to pay for "core elements of education".
"We try to work with parents to get them to pay it because we have to make sure that we can cover the costs," Carter said.
"If you don't keep up with what the other schools are doing, parents vote with their feet."
All schools provided annual financial reports to the ministry, but he did not believe the ministry paid any attention to them, since funds never matched costs.
Tawa College asks for an annual activities fee of $290 a pupil, mainly to cover computer resources, library books, and sport and culture. Anything extra, such as musical instruments and lockers, incurs more fees.
Principal Murray Lucas said the school could ask for lower donations, but the education offered to pupils would be "crude and rustic".
About 70 per cent paid the donation, and he admired them for making sacrifices when many were "struggling from day to day".
"If we're going to keep up, we're going to need a large block paying it. [But] we don't do anything like debt collectors.
"Most parents want to do the right thing by their school."
Wellington High School asks families to contribute $300 to cover "enhancements" to their child's core education.
School operations grants were not enough, particularly for ICT, principal Nigel Hanton said.
"Between the expectation we have to be providing 21st century learning environments and the money we have, there are huge gaps."
Many schools have "deliberately muddied the water" on whether school fees are mandatory or voluntary, Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin says.
Ministry of Education guidelines state "there is no charge for primary and secondary education at state and state-integrated schools for children aged 5-19 years who are New Zealand citizens or permanent residents".
State-integrated schools can charge fees, called "attendance dues", for property costs or building maintenance, and state schools can charge for take-home items, activities or events that enhance but are not essential to teaching the curriculum.
Chetwin said parents contacting Consumer NZ were always told education was supposed to be free, but the reality was that there was no such thing as a free education in New Zealand.
"Schools are between a rock and a hard place when there is not enough funding to run the school."
Last year, some schools were found to be enlisting the help of debt collectors to claim unpaid "donations".
In 2010, Karamu High School in Hastings was reprimanded after advising a parent that her daughter could not buy a ball ticket or order a school-leaver's jersey until donation money was paid. The threat was withdrawn after the ministry became involved.
Additional reporting by Seamus Boyer, Kay Blundell, Tracey Chatterton and Elle Hunt
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