Charter schools: Against the interests of the majority of teachers and students

Joel Cosgrove

‘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.


  1. Don Franks says:

    Interesting article . Raises a lot of hard questions.

    There is a lot at stake here, if a kid loses out at school it can sometimes hobble them for much of their lifetime.

    My instinct is that Charter schools will increase class inequality, how we react to them I think is very much up for debate.

    I don’t care a lot if these these schools will not be required to deliver the curriculum. Is adherence to the government curriculum a proven road to workers kids educational happiness or achievement?

    Neither am I alarmed that Charter schools will be able to hire people who have no teaching qualifications.
    I have been regularly employed to teach without formal qualification at a school for the last two years and I think all parties concerned gained from that arrangement.

    “The public education system is flawed” – maybe so, I have not investigated it that much.
    How and to what extent is it flawed?
    What flaws need fixing first and how and by who?

    Specifically and concretely, what sort of new and improved models of educating might we consider?

    Teacher unions have their vested interests here and they have my sympathy. School teaching is a tough call and thank god these workers have retained union organisation.

    Education of the working class and education for socialist revolution are wider questions than teacher unionism. In the present climate we have time to reflect and offer ideas on those issues.

  2. the teachers union support the labour party and fight to maintain the status quo, I have had direct experience with the ministry and the teachers union with respect to our school. The ministry closed it purely on the political colour of the area and the teachers just lay down with out a fight because the union had them jobs in other schools.

    This was done against the communities wishes and to the detriment of the community. Our school had the best outcomes of all the schools in the area but that was irrelevant . Wellington spoke and we had no choice.

    From family experience I have seen children be victimised by teachers and processed by a system designed to move them through with minimal fuss and unable to treat a child as an individual. I have also seen very good teachers struggle against the system.

    Lead or follow if teachers want to run their schools here is a chance, why not develop co-operatives that work within communities instead of waiting for their orders from a ministry that can’t even pay them on time.

  3. There’s the usual danger of leftists defensively praising the status quo as fine, which is problematic as I think we need to grapple with the legacy of the 80’s ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ reforms. Because the Charter Schools policy is to the right of Tomorrow’s Schools people come out defending Tomorrow’s Schools. Pretty tried and test right-wing method.
    I guess the problems with the Charter Schools policy is the ideology behind them and the package nature of the reforms. Unqualified teachers are used at the moment as you point out. Yet the role of unqualified teachers in this policy is to push through policy which starts the process of undermining the teachers’ unions and the strong collective voice that they are displaying in Christchurch for instance.
    I don’t know the answer to changing the schooling system into one that is run by the community for the community (or whatever framework it takes under socialism). I guess we just have to look around for new ideas, new ways of looking at these questions/problems.
    From my experience at school a decade or so ago, it was a monumental failure as an educational structure. There needs to be some radical re-conception of how it rolls.

  4. Disagree with the conclusions in the comment section about taking time to reflect and offering suggestions and the emphasis on radically rethinking.

    To me this seems like the answers are meant to drop from the sky to people who possess Marxist analytical skills. The ‘answer’, for want of a better word, is actually constrained by material conditions.

    The Marxist method is a combination of theory and practice. Therefore we try to point the way forward for the struggle from where it stands today. If we don’t do that then its absolutely correct that teacher unionism and tasks relating to socialism will remain totally separate. We want teachers unions under rank-and-file leadership to use working class tactics and be part of carrying out socialist tasks.

  5. Don Franks says:

    That’s all good Jared and I accept it as a theoretical recipie, but your own post dropped from the sky without one skerrick of material basis along with it.

    • Jared Phillips says:

      The previous article on the blog re Christchurch teachers sets out our view on the direction that should be taken by teachers and sets out a view of what needs to be done in the current circumstances – i.e. defend schools against closures and defend the education system from charter schools bu using working class tactics such as broadening the strike and forming broader committees to defend against closures. That is putting forward a socialist position. Negating the connection between ‘teacher unionism’ and the prospects of socialism, and in the meantime reflecting, is not a serious socialist position.

  6. Don Franks says:

    ” The ‘answer’, for want of a better word, is actually constrained by material conditions.”

    Sure it is.

    I posed three questions, all rooted in material conditions.

    “The public education system is flawed” – How and to what extent is it flawed?
    What flaws need fixing first and how and by who?
    Specifically and concretely, what sort of new and improved models of educating might we consider?

    As a professional teacher I’m interested in discussion of this stuff.

    • I could give a general answer to your first question, a glib answer to your second mentioning the working class, self-emancipation and self-organisation, with mentions of Gramsci and Paulo Friere and I don’t have any idea of how I’d concretely answer your third question.
      I have little if anything to do with teaching, I have read little radical literature on the subject.I’m not the person/people who will come up with the direct answers to this, but engaging in the wider struggle that incorporates these questions will develop answers.
      I think it is a mistake to assume that we have all the answers and can develop a comprehensive programme that answers these questions, when we’re not directly linked or involved in the struggle that will develop the revolutionary synthesis required to honestly answer your questions.

    • Jared Phillips says:

      1) How is the public ed system flawed? It is totally flawed in a number of ways, division of mental and manual labour, ascription of gendered course programmes, education system for children and youth rather than lifelong education. The list goes on and on. This article was about charter schools, the prior article to be read in conjunction was about ‘where to’ at the moment given the current objective situation.

      2) What flaws need to be fixed and how? The priorities would seem to be deflecting charter schools, school closures, and continuing to deflect class size changes.

      3) What other models: To be serious, all we could say is that any socialist education planning would be a synthesis of progressive and socialist education theory and experience applied to the material conditions in New Zealand.

      For anything more specific than that Joel is correct, it is a completely unanswerable question. We can’t sit here and dream up a model. That’s just pure idealism.

      Maybe your blog could propose some models. It’d make as much sense to thinking workers as your blackcaps conference article, which was hilarious – not the content, but that your editorial team would consider publishing it.

  7. Don Franks says:

    Interesting discussion here.

    There is a connection between ‘teacher unionism’ and the prospects of socialism,also a disconcection.

    Labour unionism is an essential defence of worker’s basic interests under capitalism.

    But labour unionism is also an acceptance of capitalism and is more often than not very hostile to revolutionary socialist ideas, because the vigorous advocacy of those ideas disrupt the balance struck between unions and employers.

    It has long been a weakness of the left to imagine and act as if we enjoy some seamless connection between unionism and revolutionary socialism. A problem I think worth reflecting on.

  8. There is no seamless connection between teachers’ unionism and revolutionary socialism. Nor is there an absolute disconnection.

    We are confronted with a ‘gap’ between the two. The job of any serious revolutionary is to bridge that gap. The job of the petty-bourgeois pseudo-radical blog is to extend that gap. Don’t wish you any luck with it.


  9. Don Franks says:

    “A gap” .

    ” Bridging that gag”.

    Perfectly put for joining the dots. Not so good I think for getting capitalism killed and replaced.

    Call me what names you like Jared, there is no silver bridge from labour unionism to socialist revolution.

    The New Zealand left has foundered on that forlorn hope.

    When I get a moment I’ll try and set that idea out in a bit more detail.

  10. Jared Phillips says:

    One would have to be half-idiot to think that there is a silver bridge from unionism to socialist revolution or socialism. In our view there is no seamless connection, as put above. But there has to be a means from getting from here to there, it does not involve silver, far from it, it’s actually an extremely difficult bridge, at the moment looking hugely difficult, particularly in NZ.

    If an organisation isn’t pointing a way forward from the current objective circumstances in conjunction with building a working class political organisation then it’s just peddling abstract idealism about revolution and at the moment would be doing so in a period of lowered working class activity. That makes it sectarian ‘from the class’ and petty-bourgeois.

    One of the shibboleths of your own petty-bourgeois blog is the downturn in class struggle. It is the premise upon which you hang your analysis. But the contradiction is that you seem to think a low level of class struggle means the correct strategy involves making the angriest demand for revolution. That is not approaching people where they are at, that is just isolating them from Marxism.

    I wasn’t name calling you. I wouldn’t call any of your blog contributors petty-bourgeois. However the nature of your project is just that. Sectarian from the class, telling in-jokes about the left, and generally playing a mystifying role in regard to workers, youth, or others who wish to engage on the ideas of socialism.

  11. In fact at the same time as announcing the need for some sort of abstract revolution why not set out the type of post-revolutionary education system you would like to see at the same time.

    You do that while we try and engage on the question of teachers and the community adopting socialist methods of struggle in a way that points towards socialist tasks.

    • Jared writes: “You do that while we try and engage on the question of teachers and the community adopting socialist methods of struggle in a way that points towards socialist tasks.”

      It’s interesting that as Fightback 2013 has adopted the politics of Socialist Worker 2003, it has also adopted SW’s bluster and hype.

      In the real world, you have no engagement at all with the Christchurch teachers. We got up an article the day after the mass meeting that voted to take strike action – it took you ‘engaged’ folks nearly two months and when you finally got up an article you got the date of the teachers’ meeting wrong by about six weeks!

      I was involved in organising a public meeting on the teachers’ issues in Christchurch back in late November. Needless to say no sign of you ‘engaged’ folks anywhere near it.

      But keep up the hype and bluster. Your pompous delusions are entertaining.

      Philip Ferguson

    • Jared writes: “You do that while we try and engage on the question of teachers and the community adopting socialist methods of struggle in a way that points towards socialist tasks.”

      But you’re not at all “engaged” with the Christchurch teachers. We got up an article on Redline on their mass meeting that voted for the strike the very next day. It took you almost two months and then your article claimed that the strike vote took place in late January, when it was actually early December!

      In late November I was the main organiser of a public meeting on the issues facing Christchurch schools and teachers and local communities. Needless to say there was no sign of WP anywhere.

      As Fightback 2013 adopts the politics of Socialist Worker 2013 you seem to be adopting their methodology of the big hype. Your pompous bluster about being engaged with Christchurch teachers by telling them things they already know, and doing so nearly two months after their mass meeting, is entertaining but it’s got nothing to do with Marxism or even reality.

      • Oops, that should have been “adopts the politics of Socialist Worker 2003”!

      • Phil don’t make me laugh, you put up a poxy article asking for donations one-two days before the CMP dispute finished after it had been going for more than a month. Before the last election you put up one measely article a couple of days before hand.

        Please take my writing literally ‘…while we try to engage..’. No bluster there at all actually. A major contortion to say so. And it was in contrast to bluster about post-revolutionary education models.

    • Philip Ferguson says:

      Jared wrote:
      “Phil don’t make me laugh, you put up a poxy article asking for donations one-two days before the CMP dispute finished after it had been going for more than a month. Before the last election you put up one measely article a couple of days before hand.”

      I see you’ve avoided dealing with the actual point about the incredible lateness of your teachers’ article and the fact that you got the date wrong by about six or seven weeks re their meeting.

      Instead you want to turn it into some kind of comparison about who has what coverage when. Well, of course, we had massively more coverage of the Ports dispute than you, so anyone can play that game.

      The simple reality remains that you have no engagement with the teachers. Given that anyone on the left here knows this, I can only assume that your bombast in response to Don was written for some other people’s consumption.

      Moreover, your latest article on the teachers shows that you’ve forgotten everything you once knew and are now channelling the kind of politics that characterised SW about ten years ago, and which you used to be scathing about when it was written by people like Grant Morgan.

      As Fightback more and more resembles SW of ten years ago, in terms of both politics and bluster, its fate is pretty much sealed.


  12. Don Franks says:

    Ok Jared, thanks, I have registered the toxicity and temperature.
    I will leave you in peace with your space.

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