Specialist Maori language centres for preschoolers are being discriminated against and need separate legislation to ensure the survival of te reo, the Waitangi Tribunal has been told.
About 300 workers and supporters of kohanga reo packed into Te Kohanga Reo Trust Board's headquarters in Wellington yesterday to hear opening submissions from the trust's counsel, Mai Chen.
Last year a hikoi of 600 people marched through the city to lodge the trust's claim that the Government was breaching its responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi with its treatment of kohanga reo.
Kohanga reo is a Maori total immersion programme for children up to the age of 6 that was founded in the 1980s among fears the language was dying.
The claim alleges a pattern of discriminatory behaviour toward kohanga reo for 20 years, but states matters were "brought to a head" by the Early Childhood Education Taskforce's report in 2010. That report recommended prioritising funding for teacher-led ECE centres and changing the structure of the Maori language preschool services.
The trust wants a formal apology from the Government and legislation that would separate kohanga reo from the Education Ministry and allow for greater control by whanau.
Ms Chen told Judge Karen Fox and tribunal members that kohanga reo centres had been assimilated into the mainstream ECE model, to their detriment.
Funding levels were also drastically limited compared with other education areas and had led to a deterioration in quality and a fall in numbers.
"Kohanga was a most successful movement, it was such a success and then it declined and the issue here is why did it decline?"
Research showed kohanga reo produced pupils twice as likely to attend university, but had received a funding increase 200 per cent less than other early education services from 2001-2002 to 2009-2010.
"Kohanga reo acts as a refuge for Maori but they require a lot of support from the Crown if they are to survive the tide."
Trust co-chairwoman Tina Olsen-Ratana said the taskforce report was the "straw that broke the camel's back" and promoted a one-size-fits-all approach to early education.
It did not take into account the cultural needs of Maori and how kohanga reo centres needed to be run differently but instead tried to mould them into something that did not work, she said.
"If it wasn't developed with us in mind in the first place it's never going to be right."
The hearing is set to run for two weeks, with trust witnesses speaking this week and the Crown to begin its case next week.
WHAT IS KOHANGA REO?
A Maori early-education project set up in 1981 by the Maori Affairs Department to halt the decline of the culture and language.
Caters for pupils from birth until aged six, who receive instruction in 100 per cent te reo.
It is whanau (family) based, with parents, elders and the community ultimately responsible for the operation.
The first centre opened near Wellington in 1982, and 100 centres were open by the end of the year.
At its peak in 1994, there were 800 centres catering to 14,000 pupils.
In 1990 responsibility was transferred to the Education Ministry, which the Kohanga Reo Trust Board claims began "mainstreaming" the centres.
There are now 463 centres in the country, with just under 9000 enrolled pupils.
- The Dominion Post