A lack of enrolments means the three residential special schools for disabled children have been costing the government as much as $890,000 per child per year.
The schools are being funded for far more students than they actually have and fear they are being deliberately starved of enrolments so that it is easier to shut them down altogether.
Last year, the three schools received $12.4 million and had 24 students between them, well below their high of more than 200 students in the early 2000s.
Meanwhile the Intensive Wraparound Service, which was introduced in 2009 as a way of supporting children with challenging behaviours in their own community rather than sending them to residential schools, had about 300 students.
Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the government supported both the residential special schools and the Intensive Wraparound Service and she did not know why the schools had such low enrolments.
"I want to see both of those options there and I have asked the Ministry of Education to come back to me as to why that is not happening. So I want to get to the bottom of that," she said.
She said Salisbury School in Richmond, Nelson had told her many people had expressed an interest in the school and about their daughters attending there.
"Now what I want to find is why has that not translated into enrolments."
Tinetti said the role of the schools might need to change, such as providing specialist support to other schools.
The government introduced in 2018 a new pathway that allowed families to make a direct application to enrol and that had been expected to increase student numbers.
The chairperson of the government-appointed board of trustees for two of the schools, Halswell in Christchurch and Westbridge in Auckland, Dave Turnbull, said the schools were each funded for 32 students but had far fewer than that.
Halswell had eight residential students and five day students with six more students due to start at the school shortly and Westbridge had four students with two others starting in the next school term.
The schools were under-utilised because the application process and the panel that approved enrolments seemed designed to block enrolments, Turnbull said.
"We're really concerned with these barriers between what we perceive is a demand and the resource that we're providing and these barriers we believe are actually Ministry of Education barriers," he said.
Turnbull said one way of closing the schools would be to gradually run down the schools' rolls to the point where they were costing $400,000 a student or more.
"Which any reasonable New Zealander would say 'that's silly, that's ridiculous'," he said.
Salisbury School's board chair Janet Kelly said the school currently had three students. Three others graduated earlier in the year and one more was due to start next term.
"Of course, we would want more students than the three we have now, but our current roll is not about lack of demand, it is about access. We are all wanting to see our residential schools fully servicing the sector as intended," she said.
The school expected enrolments would increase because the ministry recently changed one of the criteria for entry to the schools.
Students were no longer required to have "fully utilised" other forms of help in their community before being considered for a special school, instead other support only had to be considered or tried, Kelly said.
The ministry said there was no plan to shut the schools.
It said it received applications for 30 children last year and approved 12 and this year it had applications for 28 children and approved nine with six pending a decision.
The ministry said there were two paths for entry to the schools - through the Intensive Wraparound Service, or through a direct application.
Entry through direct application had four criteria: the young person is aged 8 to 15 years old (Year 3-10); highly complex and challenging behaviour, social and/or learning; local learning support services have been considered or tried but residential special school is the best way of meeting the child/young person's needs; and the young person does not need an intervention in the home or community.
For and against
Bridget Rae told RNZ it took a year-and-a-half to get a young person in her family into Halswell residential school in Christchurch at the end of last year.
She said she was aware of families that had applied multiple times to residential special schools before they succeeded and it should not be that hard.
"We believe that the ministry is trying to slyly get rid of these schools. We actually fully believe that they are trying to not resource them that they are trying to have them quietly die in the background and nobody will even know and that infuriates me because we absolutely need these schools and in fact we need more of them," she said.
Rae said the school had been great for the young person, who had been out of school for two years and during that time had received little to no support from the Education Ministry.
But not everyone agrees the schools should be saved.
The Inclusive Education Act Group is a group of parents and educators who lobby for schools to be more inclusive of children with disabilities.
University of Auckland senior lecturer in education and committee member Jude MacArthur said the residential special schools were an old-fashioned and out-moded method of supporting children with challenging behaviour.
"If we could use that funding that's being used at the moment to support a small group of children in quite an expensive setting, if we could use that in schools and communities, how much better off would we be," she said.
"That's much more consistent with what we know is an effective approach to supporting children and young people these days."