Unchartered waters

The original charter schools were started by teacher unions in the United States more than 20 years ago to enrich the public school system by trying out new ways of…

charter-cartoonThe original charter schools were started by teacher unions in the United States more than 20 years ago to enrich the public school system by trying out new ways of doing things and sharing what worked. But the model has since been hijacked by right-wing political parties, big business, and fundamentalist thinkers who want to use them to replace state schools.The main perpetrator here is Associate Minister of Education John Banks, who got charter schools through the election deal between ACT and National. They are Banks’ pet project – taxpayer funded schools operated by “sponsors” who’ll get more money than state schools but won’t be bound by the same rules.Banks says the aim is to lift the achievement of children in disadvantaged communities” what the government calls its priority groups” a goal sponsors will have to prove they are reaching. But Auckland University’s Peter O’Connor says this is like using the children of poor districts as the research and development unit of the education system. He says there’s already plenty of scope under our existing self-managing school system for state funded schools to run innovative programmes. But most are held back by woefully inadequate operations grants” especially in areas where parents can’t afford high fees to supplement government funding.

Even the Treasury didn’t back charter schools as a means of raising student achievement; it wanted incentives for better teachers and better leadership at low decile, poorly performing schools. It also pointed to inconclusive evidence for the success of charter schools in other countries (see fact box).

What’s in a name?

New Zealand primary schools already operate according to a charter agreed with the local community – and they already have much more autonomy than schools in countries that have enthusiastically adopted charter schools, and who rank well below us on international tables comparing student performance.

They were introduced in the United States, the UK and Sweden partly to be more responsive to diverse communities. Here, with kura kaupapa, state integrated faith schools and special character schools, the innovative New Zealand Curriculum and creative teaching methods – you could well ask, why do we need charter schools?

They’ve been renamed “partnership schools kura hourua” by the head of the charter schools working group, former Act president Catherine Isaac, who wanted something “cool and effective” to replace the negative connotations charter schools have. But who are the partners?

Existing schools are a partnership between educators and boards that represent parents and communities” the new schools will be a partnership between the Crown and sponsors, many of whom see running a school as a business. Their governing bodies might contract out management to profit-making education providers that won’t have to have any parent, staff or local community representation.

John Minto of the Quality Public Education Coalition says charter schools aren’t about raising student achievement but “a political response to a corporate problem” how can we get into public education and make private profit from government spending?”

Taking care of business

With public money siphoned off from an already anaemic education budget, religious groups, private schools, businesses, iwi, foreign companies and culture-based sponsors will have much more operational freedom than state schools, and different approaches to teaching, property and school organisation.
They’ll get money for set up costs and property that sponsors can keep if a school folds. Banks told Parliament they’ll also be able to keep per-student funding if a child drops out.

The Ministry of Education says funding will be non-tagged “to allow sponsors flexibility to make investment decisions that support the achievement of the contracted outcomes”.

So the schools will be cashed up” they’ll get more funding per student than state schools” the same property, staffing and operational funding as a decile 3 school (no matter where they are) and an extra $276 per student top-up in lieu of centralised support. The cash will go directly to charter schools, but they won’t be accountable for how they spend it. They can have a chief executive instead of a principal, longer school days, weeks, and terms, and devise their own curriculum. They can cut costs by employing few, if any, registered teachers and by giving them lower pay and conditions. They might save money by not having libraries or proper classrooms.

Massey University professor John O’Neill says the extra money charter schools get another five percent of overall funding allocated per student – could have an effect on achievement. How can it then be claimed that improved results are not due to extra funding?

A word from our sponsors: who are they?

The Ministry refuses to release the list of organisations that have registered an interest in operating charter schools, but it’s likely they’ll include iwi, who see them as a way of getting better results for Maori. Iwi Education Authority head Pem Bird says they’ll allow Maori organisations and iwi to have more influence and input into the curriculum.

Others wanting a slice of the education pie might include the Maharishi Foundation, the US based String Theory Schools, RAISE Pasifika, a couple of Manukau based training institutes and NZ Christian Proprietors Trust schools whose applications to become state integrated were declined. Another Christian school that’s shown an interest is Remuera’s Mt Hobson Middle School, which wants to develop of a chain of similar schools throughout New Zealand. Some will be run for profit– Peter O’Connor says it’s a wacky idea, to give people money to make a profit out of education. Even in the United States, most states forbid charter schools to run for profit.

Church and state

Sean Faircloth, a lawyer and former US state legislator who visited New Zealand in April as a guest of the Humanist Society – warns against charter schools. He says they’re a window for the entry of religious indoctrination that will divide child from child and divide society.
Faircloth says some faith based schools could violate human rights. He says it’s unfair to teach children creationism “that the world was literally created in six days” or that girls should be subordinate to boys. He’s not against a tolerant, liberal Christian instruction that happens outside school hours, but says fundamentalist schools shouldn’t have a government stamp of approval.

Peter O’Connor says as well as a threat to the secular nature of schools, charter schools pose a threat to a broad, humanist tradition of education, which offers a diversity of views and opinions” charter schools don’t have that requirement. “At the moment if you have a particular faith there are faith schools that you can send your children to, and that’s what you pay for. “But this is taxpayers’ money for teaching creationism.”

Knock on effect

As well as being a wacky idea – giving people money to run schools for profit – it’s not going too far to suggest charter schools are part of a campaign to dismantle NZ’s public education system. They could have a domino effect – replacing state schools a few years down the track by siphoning off the more able or well supported students from better organised families.

Existing schools’ rolls will fall, meaning fewer teachers, and fewer resources. The children left behind, whose parents aren’t willing or able to “exercise a choice of school”” or who don’t want their children to have a faith-based education” will be left in poorer performing schools that will enter a downward spiral of decline and eventually close.

Fact box

The register of interest for partnership school sponsors closed on 16 April, the select committee reported back to Parliament 18 April, the first schools will open next year.

Authorisation Board chaired by Act’s Catherine Isaac, members include former Auckland Grammar principal John Morris, former PriceWaterhouseCoopers head John Shewan, Kohanga reo pioneer Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, former chief executive of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, Tahu Potiki.

Research on US charter schools found 17 percent were superior to a similar public school; 37 percent were worse; and 46 percent had academic gains no different from a similar public school.

Many Hawai’ian charter schools were set up in the 1990s to reflect Hawaiian culture in a similar way to NZ’s kura and kohanga movement. In 2001 the Hawaiian Audit slammed them for a lack of accountability, poor performance, nepotism, and unethical or illegal use of public funds.

In Sweden similar schools had no consistent effect on results and Swedish students slid down the ladder in the last global ranking of student achievement. (PISA, 2009)

In the 2009 PISA tests of 65 countries– including all OECD countries, New Zealand was 7th in reading, 13th in maths and 7th in science” well ahead of any of the charter school countries. The US was 17th, 31st and 33rd, the UK 26th, 28th and 16th and Sweden 20th, 26th and 29th respectively.