Government underspend punishes schools
More than $32 million of funding for children with special needs has languished in government coffers for two years, leaving schools to foot the bill.
The Ministry of Education says the underspend is because of the delay between announcing special education programmes and implementing them - a practice that isn't "unusual".
In Wellington, Berhampore Primary School board of trustees chairman Giovanni Tiso has a 9-year-old daughter with autism, who is one of many he says would benefit from millions of dollars of special education funding.
While his daughter receives additional targeted funding, it's only a contribution and doesn't cover the full cost of her needs, which the school ends up having to top-up at the expense of other students.
Because of Berhampore School's reputation for inclusiveness it has a high proportion of students with special needs that is constantly increasing.
"The schools that are being inclusive are effectively being punished for it."
Every special needs child that enrols at the school "creates an extra hole in the budget", Tiso, who is a prominent Left-wing blogger, said.
Additional teacher aides, speech therapists and more targeted funding for students with special needs would go a long way to improve the education of children like his daughter, he said.
"There's a massive shortfall at the moment for children receiving targeted funding because of this system being used to allocate it."
One of the programmes responsible for the education budget underspend is Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L), which has been championed by Education Minister Hekia Parata.
It has received annual cash injections since 2009, including more than $63m of an $80.5m budget in 2013.
This is despite the ministry revealing it didn't fill the staff vacancies needed to implement it.
In 2013 Parata said the PB4L programme had proven its effectiveness since it was launched in 2009.
"Where those are showing they're delivering positive returns we're continuing to back them, like we have done with PB4L," she said at the time.
On Tuesday she said PB4L has proved to be an "effective programme in the schools that are participating in it".
The ministry is aware it needs to do better in special education, including being more flexible with special needs children, head of sector enablement Katrina Casey said.
"We are going to be engaging with schools, parents and whanau and education and disability sector partners in April and May to hear their views on how we can better support their special education needs."
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said there was a level of need that existed in special education that wasn't being supported.
"We have schools with kids with serious violence issues who have a nine-month wait to be assessed."
She doubted schools were fully aware of the programmes available to them.
"If some of these programmes are failing or there's money left over, are the Government unable to reprioritise that money, or are they saying there's a lack of need?"
"Clearly there's a huge need out there," she said.
NZEI teachers' union president Louise Green said there were so many vulnerable children who would benefit from $32m.
"That money would go along way to those needing funding who don't have access to it or are rationed because of the limited funding."