‘Hard to see harm in a little more choice in education’ was the first line in a recent NZ Herald editorial regarding charter schools. On this issue the mainstream media has taken cues from the National government and presented the introduction of charter schools as harmless, not to be worried about, almost not worth debating.
The announcement of policy introducing charter schools arose from the coalition process between ACT MP John Banks and the National Party. It was a surprise for the public.
The policy has brought heavy criticism from teachers, parents, and everyday people who are concerned with social equality. Prime Minister John Key has shrugged off the criticism by laying the blame with the ACT Party.
He claims the policy is a consequence of having to enter coalition government. However the Act Party did not have a strong position in its negotiations with National.
In reality ACT play the role of pushing the National Party from the right. ACT puts forward extreme policies and the National Party waters them down and gives them a PR spin which makes them sound more acceptable. This gives National the appearance of being centrist or moderate when in fact they are pursuing a right wing economic agenda.
The language used in the policy announcement was of the style used by the Business Round Table (now the New Zealand Initiative). The terminology in the announcement included “business models”, “public-private partnerships” and even “for-profit management groups”.
The introduction of charter schools is just a recent example of that dynamic being used by the coalition. In the education sector, this is the latest in a series of attacks that have included the imposition of National Standards and continued attempts to impose larger class sizes.
The charter school programme is a U.S. model being imposed into a New Zealand context. A charter school is one which receives public funding but is not bound by the same regulations and rules as a regular state school. Within the US there are some community driven charter schools in poor and working class areas which play a positive role. Oppositely there are other charter schools that are created as straight out attempts to bust unions and put authoritarian wedges into existing school districts.
The New Zealand context is very different to the U.S. one. Because these types of factors aren’t clear, it’s impossible to have a meaningful public discussion before the charter school system is rolled out.
What is clear is that these schools will not be required to deliver the curriculum, will be able to hire people who have no teaching qualifications, will not be subject to scrutiny by way of the Official Information Act, and will not have to enrol local children.
What these operations will all share is that they will receive large amounts of state funding yet will be allowed to operate outside the current education framework and will not be held to the same level of transparency as regular schools.
The neoliberal reforms of the 1980s heavily decentralised the New Zealand schooling system. Boards of trustees took over many of the Ministry of Education. Twenty-one parents can call for a school to be created to fulfil needs not met by the regular school system. The Kura Kaupapa schools developed by Maori are an example, as are the various other ‘alternative’ schools. On accepting state funding those schools must provide basic levels of transparency and accountability demanded under the Education Act. This raises the question of why exactly the charter schools policy is being implemented at all.
Firstly, at its core there is a push to further the deregulation of schools. This started in the 1980s and involved taking away what little ability there is to provide any centralised oversight. By decentralising the system, governments can claim that they have nothing to do with the success or failure of individual schools.
By placing responsibility onto individual boards the government can blame the ‘market’ and assert that the government has no role in the market. The government can then act like a Mafia boss and use a minion to make sure it has no direct involvement in a compromising situations. This will allow the government to pass policies, control funding, strangle schools and deny responsibility for unpopular decisions .
Secondly, the leading reason for the introduction of charter schools is to push the thin edge of a heavy wedge into the collective agreements of the teachers’ unions. Attacks on teachers through the 1980s through to the attacks of last year have been unsuccessful in their attempts to isolate teachers from each other and undermine their national collective. While head-on attacks by current Education Minister Hekia Parata have proven to be suicidal, what we see with the charter schools policy is an attempt to sneak in changes and widen them out at a later point. The first step is setting up a small number of schools with unregistered (and presumably un-unionised) teachers.
Prominent Labour Party member John Tamihere favours the use of charter schools saying that the system would create better prospects for students at lower decile schools. Each school would “have a whole range of people supporting the school”, making the school “the hub of the whole community” adding that “it’s not about profit, it’s about performance. It’s not about teachers and teachers’ employment agencies, it’s about the kids.”
This approach dismisses the role of teachers and attributes a low level of importance to them. It is a totally wrong position. Even the Treasury advised the government against implementing a charter school system. Treasury’s position is that quality teaching is the key factor in student achievement. It advises that compulsory teacher registration provides for a standard of quality. Treasury reached that position on charter schools despite not being an ally of the teachers. Its position regarding ‘quality’ of teachers over quantity of teachers has been used to support attacks on teachers in relation to class sizes.
The reality is that if more money is put into a school, whether an existing one or a charter school, it will quite likely deliver improved results. In the 1990s a few schools were highly funded with bulk-funding which gave the impression that the bulk funding policy could deliver. However, if the same money had been put into the existing cash-strapped system the improved results would likely have followed in a similar manner.
In this period of relative austerity, in which public spending is being tightly constrained, the government has managed to find money to put into the charter school system as it is an attempt to ideologically dominate over the teaching profession.
Charter schools will have the effect of weakening public education and making education an isolating and alienating experience for students and teachers. The public education system is flawed but we need to strengthen it and develop new and improved models of educating.