Some schools have given up billing parents for donations because so few are paying, and in some cases are asking for hands-on help instead.
Experts say with only four out of 10 families paying at some schools in struggling areas, schools would be better off getting parents to help out at school rather than waste time chasing them for money.
Hamilton primary schools Deanwell and Whitiora estimated only 40 per cent of parents paid donations asked for by the schools. Huntly College has no set donation.
Despite primary and secondary state education being nominally free, parents contribute more than $100 million a year in fees that cannot be legally enforced.
Ministry of Education figures show $103m was paid in school donations in 2011, compared with $99m in 2010 and 2009, and $75m in 2008. Total operations grants received by the country's 2500-plus schools in 2012 was $1.2 billion, excluding tax.
New Zealand School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said the reasons parents did not pay were either down to finances or principle.
"I think the issue is more around the word ‘donation'. I don't think it matters if it's $1 or $1000. They don't have to pay it . . . we are supposed to have a free education in New Zealand, are we not?" she said.
"A few years ago [schools] could fundraise for the ‘nice to have' things, but now they're becoming more reliant on them just to help deliver the curriculum."
She knows of one school which had given up on donations and instead was asking for hands-on help from parents.
"A lot of parents got more involved with the school, since that shame of not being able to pay [donations] wasn't there any more," she said.
While she said it would be difficult to apply to all schools given their differences, it might be a matter of rethinking priorities.
Mother of three Tash Makaea was all for the donations, and also said if such a scheme came into play she would be among the first to volunteer.
"I'm happy to pay the donations, I think the more you put in, the more the kids get out of it. If parents got involved more instead, I think it would be a lot better for the kids and for the parents, because we can see what actually goes on and learn from the school as well as seeing our kids learn."
However, Deanwell School principal and Waikato Principals Association Pat Poland said the donations were necessary for now because government funding is simply not enough.
"We couldn't run this place just on what the Government gives us. But some people staunchly believe it is the Government's job to provide a free education in New Zealand and because of that they will not pay," he said.
Whitiora School principal Paul Cooper said while only about 40 per cent of families paid the donations, what they gave was vital to running the school.
"We would prefer not to have to ask at all, but we can't just can't afford [not to]," he said.
While schools said there were no consequences for those who did not pay, some parents said their children have missed out and been victimised.
One mother, who did not want to be named for fear her children would be further singled out, said her boys had been pulled out of class activity and made to sit and watch as a result of unpaid fees.
But principals said there were no consequences or incentives at their schools, saying it would be "morally wrong", especially given the financial hardships some families were facing.
So much so, that some schools have even stopped asking altogether.
Rhode Street School and Huntly College were just two of the schools that did not advertise, enforce or request donations.
Ministry of Education spokesman Matt Radley said government funding for schools was adequate.
"[It's enough] to cover the operation of a school and provides the means for students to achieve success. Within that provision, schools make their own decisions about how the funding is applied," he said.
The ministry did not condone pressuring parents, he said, and in effect making voluntary payments compulsory.
MONEY 'NOT THE ONLY WAY TO HELP'
Renee Marshall is one parent drawing the line, refusing to pay school donations and trying to prove that money is not the only solution.
The mother of four has two children at Vardon Primary and one at Fraser High School, and has never paid the voluntary donation.
"I think they've got good reasons for asking for them, but I just think that's what my taxes pay for. If they cut my tax back and gave that to the school I'd be happy with that," she says.
"But are they allowing us the financial ability to contribute to schools? That's the way I've always seen it and I've never paid, though I've definitely felt pressured," she said.
She said the donation shows up on the fees invoice sent out regularly by the schools - clearly stated as a donation, but there as a reminder nonetheless.
"I've heard that kids miss out on things if you don't pay, but I really don't know how true that is," she says.
"But even if it is, you can acknowledge them in other ways outside of school. You just say, ‘don't worry about it, we'll go and do this instead'."
And while fingers are being pointed at schools and the Ministry of Education, Mrs Marshall said it is not up to either bodies - it's up to the community.
"Everybody should play a part but it doesn't have to be about money. Rather than paying for someone to come in and do something specific, there's a whole lot of people out there looking for work that could do some work experience . . . How many solo mums are out there looking for work that know how to cook?
"If I knew for sure that the money was going to benefit my children directly, then I would consider it," she said.
"If I had it I would give it, but I don't. But I'm happy to help in other ways, with time, with baking for bake sales, anything."
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