Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The Greens’ private school funding scandal

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The Greens’ private school funding scandal

Was it just a terrible stuff-up? Or a reflection of the political direction the Green Party is shifting in? The announcement this week by co-leader James Shaw that he had secured nearly $12m for a private school has angered educationalists and raised significant questions about the Greens and what they now stand for.

The decision to give this huge amount of money to an environmental school in Taranaki is further evidence for many that the Greens have either lost their way, making poor and unprincipled decisions in power, or are simply shifting towards a more “green capitalism” approach.

Anger from the education sector

In a time of heightened concern about economic inequality and the run-down state of New Zealand schools, the decision to put such a large amount of money into a new for-profit school was always going to be controversial. It’s not surprising to see the whole of the public education sector speaking out angrily against Shaw’s funding announcement.

One of the strongest reactions has come from a Decile 2 school in the same area. New Plymouth’s Marfell School acting principal, Kealy Warren has written an open letter to the Prime Minister saying: “This action makes the rich richer and says loud and clear that you have little regard for the state school system. You have given to those who already have so much and yet again left us hanging” – see Rachel Sadler’s New Plymouth principal writes scathing letter to Jacinda Ardern over ‘elitist’ funding for private school.

The letter also says: “This is totally unacceptable, elitist, and completely inequitable. It is a clear statement that you value the rich while actively keeping the low socio-economic schools in their place at the bottom of the heap.”

RNZ reports this principal’s reaction upon hearing the news: “I felt physically sick, I wanted to vomit. I could not believe we were being so disrespected in favour of an elitist private school” – see Jo Moir’s Pressure on Green co-leader James Shaw to pull support for Taranaki Green School.

The problem for Kealy Warren is that her school, like many others, has leaky classrooms, and fixing these isn’t being prioritised. The article also quotes Shaw himself, perhaps making it worse, saying “This is an area I think that New Zealand should be frankly ashamed of in terms of our continuing underinvestment in this area.” But his own defence is that his decision was not about schools, but about jobs: “In terms of the infrastructure spend, it is in many ways just another construction project.”

The New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) representing 50,000 teachers, has also reacted with disbelief at the Green decision, with national secretary Paul Goulter saying “We just can’t understand why the Government would go ahead and fund a private school with public money at a time when public schools in the Taranaki region are crying out for this type of investment” – see Thomas Coughlan’s Greens caught bending party policy to grant $11.7m to private school in Taranaki.

The union points out that the Government’s current programme for improving ageing public school infrastructure has a cap of $400,000, and this grant to the private school “would be enough to fund nearly 30 schools at that rate.”

The Principals’ Association in the region has also hit out at the lack of fairness, saying: “We’ve got state and state-integrated schools all around our province and the country screaming for funding for leaky buildings, modernisation projects and lots of overcrowding issues and we’re just a bit worried this going to set a precedent” – see Robin Martin’s Taranaki education leaders furious at govt funding for private school.

This article also reports the Post Primary Teachers’ Association saying “New Zealand education is about equity. They’re big on equity and I don’t think we would see this as equitable for all our people.”

In another article, the PPTA’s regional chair Erin MacDonald says “it’s a kick in the guts” and that other schools have “shovel-ready” projects urgently needing funding: “Colleagues all over the region and country are teaching in libraries, in hallways and in damp and mouldy rooms” – see Newstalk ZB’s ‘Gutted’: Outrage after money allocated to private green school.

Other schools in the region are also angry – Brianna Mcilraith reports that special needs education in Taranaki is currently under-threat through lack of funding, with one programme being forced to close next year – see: Parents of special education facility fighting for survival disgusted at Govt’s $11.7m funding to private Taranaki school.

Dismay from within the Greens and the political left

Not only are educationalists and political opponents appalled at the Green decision, embarrassingly, party activists and former MPs are also publicly revolting. Jo Moir’s article reports: “Sue Bradford described the move as incredible, and a total hand-out to the wealthy. Mojo Mathers took to Twitter to say she was furious, while Denise Roche warned the party’s credibility was being ruined by such a move. Catherine Delahunty, who was a Green MP for nine years – holding the education portfolio for many of them, says she’s astonished. ‘This is a mistake, fix the mistake and the electorate will respect you for it. Don’t fix it and they will lose faith in you, it’s that simple’.”

The problem is that the Green decision goes directly against the party’s core policy of opposing private education. They have campaigned strongly that the party would “phase out funding for private schools” not increase it.

The party’s Young Green wing has denounced their leaderships’ decision, putting out a statement to say they are “appalled that James Shaw took the stance of allowing funding to be given to a private school when there are so many low-decile and kura kaupapa Māori that would greatly appreciate this sort of funding… This is not what the party stands for. This is not creating access to free, high-quality, and accessible public education” – see Alice Webb-Liddall: Green Party under fire for $11m public funding of private ‘Green School’.

Many on the political left are also aghast that the party is responsible for transferring money to private schooling. Blogger No Right Turn sums the funding up like this: “This is a private school, providing exclusive education for the rich. Having ‘green’ in the name and an ecological focus doesn’t change that” – see: The Greens are supposed to be better than this. He concludes that it’s “another example of how being in government has changed the Greens, how power has corrupted them”.

Not everyone is critical of the decision. Writing on the pro-Government blogsite The Standard, Greg Presland gives his sympathy not to the state schools missing out, or disillusioned Green members, but to the party leadership: “I feel for Shaw. Politics is difficult and when you have a pandemic and a major economic hit and you need to shovel lots of money out the door into projects that have to be ready to go you can quickly get yourself into awkward positions” – see: Kia kaha Greens.

Reaction from the right

Not surprisingly, the political right is pushing strongly against the Green decision, with a variety of objections to it. National’s education spokesperson Nicola Willis called the $11.7m funding “eye-wateringly generous” and questioned why an “exclusive private school has been granted such an extraordinary amount of money” when there’s such need in state schools.

Some on the right argue that the funding of this particular private school is questionable. This is best put in David Farrar’s blogpost, Outrage over Greens taxpayer funding of private school. He says he supports the current “modest” funding of private schools (“$1,500 per student subsidy”), but believes that $12m is “horrendous” for an untested “school hand picked by Green Party Ministers because it shares their name and ethos”.

Farrar also points out that the new school will be one of the most elite and expensive in the country, for the use of the wealthiest 1% in society. In terms of fees charged, he says “If a child attended the school for all 13 years of primary and secondary it would cost the family $317,300.”

Not all on the right see the shift in policy from the Greens as a bad thing. Former Associate Minister of Education and Act MP Heather Roy has blogged her admiration: “Congratulations James Shaw! I never thought I would be complimenting the Green Party co-leader for his support of school choice for parents and students” – see: Green Party hypocrisy good for school choice.

Pressure on the Greens to reverse the decision

Since the backlash, Shaw has come out with some ambiguous statements about his regret over the decision. Talking to party members on Friday night on a Zoom conference call, he apologised for the controversy, saying he was aware that it has jeopardised support for the party. According to a report on this, “he would not make the same decision if given another opportunity. He told the group of 460 people he had thought of the project as a building and construction project rather than an education one” – see RNZ’s James Shaw apologises for signing-off on funding for ‘green’ private school.

But talking publicly, Shaw has since been less clear in his apologies, taking responsibility but not necessarily saying it was wrong. On Newshub The Nation he said that if faced with such a decision again “I probably would have taken a second look” – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Greens co-leader James Shaw takes the blame over private school funding ‘hypocrisy’.

Will the Greens and Government reverse the private school funding? There is certainly mounting pressure for them to do so. A petition has been launched calling for this, which currently has 10,500 supporters – see: Reduce the Green School Grant.

The principal of New Plymouth’s Marfell School, Kealy Warren, has reacted to Shaw’s apology by questioning exactly who he is apologising to, suggesting he’s only worried about the impact on Green support: “When he says he caused damage, does he mean to his party and himself? Or is he acknowledging the principals, the children, the schools, the teachers, and the families of Taranaki and the damage he’s caused us?” – see Stephanie Ockhuysen’s James Shaw invited to see mouldy, leaky state schools after million-dollar grant to private school.

Warren wants Shaw to withdraw the funding and focus on fixing state schools. Shaw is reported as looking for another solution. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has come out against reversing the decision, saying “I think the Government’s got to act in good faith here with an applicant and so I’ve got no intention to do that”.

Coalition partner NZ First also wants the decision to remain, with the Minister in charge of the Provincial Growth Fund, Shane Jones, saying it’s not so easy to do a U-turn on the funding: “I understand that there are members of the Green Party who are warning of buyers’ remorse but quite frankly this is not a situation where it’s a pig in the poke” – see Amelia Wade’s Green School funding: Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones says controversial project isn’t a ‘pig in the poke’.

This article reports both NZEI and the National Party wanting the decision reversed and pressuring the Government to explain why it can’t do so. National’s Nicola Willis wants more transparency on the issue, and believes the “Government should be asking Crown Law for advice on whether it was too late to back out or if they were locked into a contract which they had to honour.”

Damaging for the Greens

A number of commentators point to the potential damage for the Green Party, as they are precariously close to the 5% MMP threshold, The scandal might help push the party out of Parliament, especially if leftwing voters are disillusioned by the political direction the party is heading in.

Unfortunately for the Greens the controversy has undermined one of the party’s key strengths – it’s reputation for being principled. This is explained well by a Stuff newspaper editorial, The perils of having a political conscience: “The fear since 2017 is that the Greens would be somehow tainted by the proximity to power. No one minds too much when other parties flip-flop on their principles. We almost expect it from some. But the Green brand is based on a holier-than-thou sense of moral purpose. If that seems unfair, it is an image they courted.”

The must-read column on the matter comes from Stuff political editor Luke Malpass – see: Hypocrisy, thy colour is Green. He argues that the Greens are in trouble, because they trade heavily on their ideals, but this controversy makes them look like any other party.

More so, it reveals what the true political nature of the party is and which economic interests they serve. Malpass argues that: “The leader of the Green Party, which purports publicly to be the party of the downtrodden and dispossessed, has inadvertently revealed itself for what many think it actually is – a party that mostly serves well-heeled Kiwis in secure and well-paid employment that care about the environment, climate change and want to go cycling and tramping on the weekend.”

Malpass says that Shaw’s political credentials with the left are now badly tarnished: “The key political takeout of this confirms what many in politics have thought about James Shaw both within and without the Green Party: that he is a ‘tree Tory’ who is out of touch with a lot of the Green Party’s ‘watermelon’ base.”

Finally, New Zealand’s semi-official poet laureate, Victor Billot, reflects on the Greens’ shift towards environmentalism for the rich – see: A(nother) poem for James Shaw.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.