Hard News by Russell Brown

Some Numbers

Spring showed up yesterday. I took a break and lay on the grass above Pt Chevalier beach, reading Keith Sinclair's autobiography, Halfway Round the Harbour; aptly, the chapter about growing up on "the Point". It's good that small boys can still swim there.

Ours did, at his own suggestion. He's 11 and back home because his being at school wasn't working out for anyone. He's very bright, but also mildly autistic, and thus emotionally (or perhaps neurologically) ill-equipped for school, and had become powerfully antagonistic towards the idea of being educated. His anxiety levels have fallen since he came home - his suggestion that we venture out was testament to that - and hopefully we'll be able to make a fresh start before too long.

In the meantime, we have an application in for Correspondence School support, thanks to the assistance of someone who, according to Bill English, is part of the problem: an education "bureaucrat", perhaps. We and the school (where the principal has been a champ) have leaned quite heavily on such people this year. So perhaps you can understand why I am quite angry that their work has been derided in the interests of making National's promise to painlessly shave $350 million (the additional cost of introducing compulsory bulk funding) from the education budget look credible. Yesterday, English further claimed that the 33% parental contribution to school costs could be eradicated by simply redirecting money from those same bureaucrats and giving it to schools.

Really? No Right Turn has done something that no one in the proper media has done: gone and looked at the numbers. He concludes:

But more importantly, when we look inside the Ministry's funding, we find that precious little of it is actually spent on bureaucrats. Of the Ministry's $1,371.667 million budget, $971.729 million goes on "provision of school sector property". $624.589 million of this is the capital charge (essentially depreciation on school buildings, repaid to the government in the name of transparent accounting), and the rest goes on maintenance, upgrades, and new construction. $163.295 million goes on the Special Education Service, which provides educational support to children with special needs.

The remainder - $236.643 million - covers everything else: administering education regulations, administering the resources, making sure that school boards of trustees didn't spend all their money on a holiday on the Gold Coast, making sure that schools meet curriculum requirements and academic standards, answering Bill English's questions ($3.7 million worth!), planning, and policy advice. That's your education bureaucracy right there. Even if it was completely disestablished, it would save only 2.8% of the total education spend, or 6.7% of the amount we spend on schools - far short of the 33% shortfall estimated above.

Basically, Bill English's claim that culling "education bureaucrats" would result in significant funding increases at the frontline are simply a fantasy. The only way he can produce the required funding increases would be either to spend vastly more money (impossible given National's tax-cut plans), or dramatically slash capital and maintenance spending, and run the schools into the ground again - exactly as National did in the 90's.

I have always respected Bill English. But I suspect even he doesn't believe what he's saying at the moment. It is a complete fantasy. There are some things in National's education policy that might help us, but there are also truck-sized holes in it. Take the promise on school zoning:

Improve choice by relaxing rigid zoning restrictions
National will put an end to rigid zoning. Some schools will want or need to restrict their intake with enrolment schemes. Because a school is a community in its own right we believe its members should have an influence over the enrolment scheme for the school. National will balance local and national interests and protect the reasonable opportunity for students to attend their local school. We will also take account of parental choice in allocating capital for school expansion.

What exactly is the "reasonable opportunity for students to attend their local school"? Is it like being "reasonably" pregnant? You either have the right for your child to attend your local school (ie: school zoning) or you don't. It's bullshit, and I care because kids like mine would be the first to miss out.

As this fawning editorial in the Herald noted in May (even as it "presumed" its way across the gaps), National's policy would direct resources to successful schools, and away from "weaker" schools, which would eventually go belly-up and duly be colonised by the good schools (which otherwise could not grow). It sounds easy when you say it, but what it means is that the policy is not only tolerant of school failure, it's predicated on it. Nice theory: in practical terms, it seems extraordinarily risky.

Revisiting another Hail-Mary policy: National's plan to DNA test everyone arrested by police (and then destroy samples where there is no conviction). First, Anthony Trenwith got back to me with an update:

Having the opportunity to hear Richard Worth speak at a meeting last week, I made a point of specifically raising the issue of the DNA sampling. I basically put to him what was posted on Hard News. He then essentially (and, I must say, to his credit) admitted that they may need to have another look at their costings on that one...

As an aside, on the question of parole, he admitted that National's non-parole policy would have to have built into it an incentive "discount" for good behaviour. The next day, I repeated this to a colleague who said: "What, you mean parole?"

Stunning. I've since tried to see whether the numbers, just on the DNA testing policy, add up. Tony Ryall insisted in an interview with Noelle McCarthy that the policy had been budgeted, to the tune of $15 million, which seemed to be a three-year figure. (Then John Key appeared to tell Scoop that it hadn't been budgeted for at all, but we'll go with Ryall's number.)

Okay: there are about 130,000 people arrested every year, who would all be swabbed on arrest. We assume, generously, that about 30,000 of them have already been tested or won't be convicted. That leaves 100,000, a slightly more than tenfold increase over the present level of testing. To be useful, a DNA sample must be analysed and banked by ESR - otherwise it's just spit on a stick. The present marginal cost of that is $200 per sample. That's $20 million a year. And that's not even to explore the additional human and physical resources required, or whether ESR can actually attract enough analysts to cover a tenfold increase in work.

Certainly, the number of those already tested would climb in succeeding years, eventually to the point where only the 40,000 never-previously-arrested people every year would need to be sampled. On the other hand, the cohort from the early 90s baby boom is just now reaching crime-committing age (expect many panicky headlines about an explosion in youth crime in the next three or four years).

There's another practical element: crime-scene testing for DNA is a lot more expensive than dusting for fingerprints - actually using the proposed universal DNA database as a matter of daily practice would be vastly expensive. However you dice it, it simply doesn't seem to add up. Once again, it would be nice to see a newspaper do these numbers. It's not that hard.

Newsweek has a story headed How Bush Blew It, which ought to be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks public anger about the handling of Hurricane Katrina is some sort of liberal plot. It's everything you ever thought. AmericaBlog excerpted the bullet points.

Wallace Chapman had an amazing interview with former Black Panther and Katrina Survivor Malik Rahim on 95bFM.

Blogger Bob Harris made himself a graphic showing the New Orleans parishes mentioned in Bush's pre-storm declaration of emergency - and the ones that weren't. It's completely insane, and Harris admits he's been trying to convince himself he got it wrong - but no luck so far.