David Seymour says education in New Zealand is "falling behind the rest of the world" as attendance drops amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ACT leader said the amount of education that had been lost in the past two years was worrying.
"What I'm worried about, for example, is how many kids are showing up at school right now," he told Breakfast on Thursday.
"The amount of education that's been lost in the last two years, that drives massive inequality, that takes away kids' opportunities and we have an enormous problem where a huge portion of kids aren't even showing up to school and it's unequal across the deciles.
"You look at the Ministry of Education, student attendance, student achievement, equality between those students' results - all of that is going backward. Our students are falling behind the rest of the world."
Seymour said, in the past four years, the ministry had gained additional 1300 bureaucrats in offices, paid an average of $93,000.
"That's more than the top teacher salary and you just have to ask 'what sort of results are we getting?'" he said.
"We could save billions of dollars, we could put some of that back into teachers and nurses and midwives and police and those people who are really struggling with the cost of living, along with everybody else."
He added: "I think we could get better outcomes for the New Zealand children and ultimately for our whole country."
Bringing Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who joined Seymour on Breakfast, into the discussion, host John Campbell said Māori tamariki were disproportionately disadvantaged in education.
Ngarewa-Packer said New Zealand needed to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi across education, health, and other sectors.
"It would mean equality is applied," she said.
But Seymour said education was "about more than just Māori" in "a modern and multi-ethnic society".
Ngarewa-Packer agreed that people of all cultures, genders, and religions should be looked afterm but added "we are not all born as one".
"But you, David, are trying to put us into one vanilla approach and that's not working for education. Education needs to be done by us, for us," she said.
"You refuse to acknowledge tangata whenua's status," she told the ACT leader.
To which Seymour, who is of Ngāpuhi descent, replied: "Yeah that's right."
"Oh thank you, what is your problem with your tangata whenua (people of the land)? What is your problem with your whakapapa?" Ngarewa-Packer asked.
"Kids' education starts with self-identity."