Parents feel obliged to pay extras
Just how optional are ‘optional’ charges in early childhood centres across the Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago district. Reporter Aimee Wilson finds out. FAST FACTS
Parents of children attending early childhood centres in Wanaka and Queenstown are being asked to pay ‘optional’ fees alongside the Government’s 20 hours free early childhood education scheme.
The problem is, some believe they don’t have a choice and feel obligated to pay.
Meanwhile, those living in Cromwell, Alexandra, Roxburgh and Ranfurly don’t have to pay anything for their three to fiveyear-olds.
In Queenstown optional charges are as high as $4.50 an hour, and although the Ministry of Education states payment cannot be enforced, there is little to stop centres ‘‘verbally’’ asking parents to contribute.
The Government introduced the 20 hours early childhood education (ECE) scheme in 2007.
Effectively it meant all children aged three and over could have 20 hours’ free ECE, but in 2011 centres were allowed to start charging optional fees.
At Montessori Children’s House Wanaka, parents are charged $2/hr optional fees and if a parent chose not to pay, they had to explain it to the board.
Chairman Andrew Howard said the policy was the board must be informed ‘‘and we then work with the parent involved to reinforce the importance of this small charge for running our centre, and to see if there is a way we can reach an agreement for paying.’’
Queenstown Montessori charges an optional fee of $4.50, according to its website, but the owners didn’t want to comment when contacted.
Wanaka Preschool wiped its optional charge at the start of the year when the percentage of parents paying dropped from 95 per cent to just 80 per cent.
However, the centre still charges $12/day for children over three (with a two-day minimum).
‘‘We did away with the optional charge because it was not a form of income we could budget on, and we felt it was unfair that some families were paying while others were not,’’ manager Lo Scurr said.
Ms Scurr said she went to a workshop with an administrator from a Queenstown centre who did not know the ‘‘optional’’ charge was optional.
‘‘She told me the caregivers must pay it.’’
The same was told to the Mirror from two parents whose children attend early childhood centres in Wanaka.
Staff at one centre told the mother when she enrolled her two kids, the optional fee was not optional as ‘‘we need the money’’.
When these claims were put to the Ministry of Education, deputy secretary Rawiri Bell said parents had to be informed at enrolment the optional charges were not compulsory.
‘‘And they must not be penalised for choosing not to pay. They cannot be a condition of initial or continued enrolment,’’ she said.
Zigzag Zoo Queenstown operations manager Fran MacNamara said a lot of centres could not operate with the current level of funding from the Government through the ECE scheme.
‘‘We are expected, and audited by the Education Review Office, to provide, a top quality education programme for all our children. This can be difficult at times without adequate income,’’ she said. Her centre’s optional charge of $6.20/day was paid by 80 per cent of parents, and used for an extra teacher to run a ‘key skills’ programme for four-year-olds.
Mr Howard said in particular centres that offered more highly qualified staff than Government funded minimums required, would find it ‘‘very difficult’’ to operate with current funding.
‘‘We are a not-for-profit, charitable trust and work hard to fundraise and access grants to supplement our income,’’ he said.
Only two of the 10 childcare centres in Central Otago has an optional charge, and the operator – Kidicorp - says there is no pressure on parents to pay it.
Kidicorp owns First Steps Matau and First Steps Centennial, based in Alexandra, where the optional charge of $1/hr was introduced in February, after taking over the business from Crayons Kindergarten.
Centre manager Gayle Taucher said no parents were currently paying it.
Central Otago Kindergarten Association (COKA) – which runs eight kindys across Queenstown lakes and Central Otago, also introduced 50 cents per half day optional charge last year.
COKA has kindys in Alexandra (2), Cromwell, Hawea, Queenstown, Frankton, Wakatipu and Maniototo.
A letter to parents last year stated that because the Ministry of Education no longer funded kindergartens for 100 per cent qualified teachers, it had ‘‘seriously impacted’’ on the organisation by reducing its annual income by 20 per cent.
Charging parents: Pre-schoolers enjoy government-funded early education but should their parents be contributing to the cost?