Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On charter schools

December 6th, 2011

Since its inception. Act has been the party of American Crackpot Theories, so we should probably be thankful that the coalition agreement between Act Party leader John Banks and the Key government didn’t include a constitutional right to bear arms.

However, the trial of charter schools that is being proposed (within some of the poorer communities in New Zealand) is yet another piece of US right wing extremism. And yes, you have a right to be surprised, given that charter schools weren’t mentioned at all during the election campaign.

Well, they’re on the agenda now – and not because they will be more efficient, or will produce better educational outcomes (neither claim is supported by the research) but because Act has an ideological distaste for the state provision of education, and almost everything else.

Charter schools come in many different forms. What they share in common is that they receive significant amounts of taxpayer funding, yet are allowed to operate outside the state system and some of its rules and regulations. The quid pro quo is that they will demonstrably meet needs or reach students that state schooling does not, for whatever reason.

Charter schools are commonly managed by corporations or non-profit groups or local parents – or some combination of those elements. Some charter schools have a distinctive philosophical or vocational emphasis. All claim to offer a better and more efficient education than the state schools that they claim are failing their students.

On RNZ this morning, Prime Minister John Key kept shifting his ground on the subject.

First, he blamed MMP for charter schools not being on the election campaign agenda. Then, he blamed “vested interests” in education for pointing out the lack of evidence that US charter schools are any more efficient than state schools. In similar vein he called charter schools a “tag” that would be adapted locally, and indicated that the final shape and required levels of state funding had yet to be devised – which of course, makes it even harder to criticise the concept.

As in Alice in Wonderland, “charter school” is a term that is going to mean whatever Key wants it to mean, and anyone raising US evidence of it being money down the drain would be (a) self interested and (b) missing the mark, because who knows what we’re talking about, and who knows what it will cost? Because he doesn’t. But he’s sure parents won’t mind too much.

In all likelihood, all this experiment will prove is that if you take a school in a poor community – call it a charter school – and then pour in money and teaching resources, it will produce better educational outcomes, and this will then be trumpeted as a victory for private provision. No matter that if you had poured similar resources into a comparable state school you would have got virtually the same result.

In some respects, the Key government is kicking down a wide open door. Choice is already all but rampant in the New Zealand state system. That’s because New Zealand went a very long way down this track nearly 25 years ago, with the Tomorrow’s Schools initiative. Those reforms made each public school independent, with very high levels of local parent and teacher involvement in decision making and – drum roll – each school already has its own charter, under which it operates with a board of trustees, and enjoys a high degree of autonomy. On top of that, there is also already provision for such variations as kura kaupapa schools.

And moreover, under section 156 of the Education Act there is provision for Designated Special Character Schools to be set up outside the state school system, provided 21 or more parents apply to do so and provided:

(b) the parents want the school to have a character that is in some specific way or ways different from the character of ordinary State schools; and
(c) the parents have given the Minister a clear written description and explanation (expressed in the form of aims, purposes, and objectives for the school) of the way or ways; and
(d) students at a school with such a character would get an education of a kind that— differs significantly from the education they would get at an ordinary State school; and is not available at any other State school that children of the parents concerned can conveniently attend; and it is desirable for students whose parents want them to do so to get such an education.

Just why a charter school couldn’t fit into this existing framework of almost umlimited choice is something of a mystery. Or – I suspect – what we’re really talking about here is a vehicle for privatisation, not a process for enhancing parental choice. As things stand, the NZ taxpayer will be paying for an ideological experiment that is virtually exempt from criticism because according to Key (a) all the experts and practitioners are biased and (b) because we’ve agreed to fund it before we know what it is and (c) don’t blame me, blame MMP.

Well, just in case this mysterious Act Party charter school model does happens in any way to accidentally resemble the US model from which it takes its name, we should be aware of the US research findings. Some were summarised only yesterday in this newspaper report (“Time To Re-Assess Charter Schools”) from New Jersey, where charter schools and voucher education are currently a hot political topic:

There seems to be a bit more resistance to some of the reforms, including vouchers and charter schools, in light of growing evidence that while there have been some successes along the way, by and large those sold as a brave new world for education, particularly urban education, haven’t lived up to the hype.

Charter schools have been around in New Jersey since 1997. That has given the state 14 years to evaluate their effectiveness. Unfortunately, New Jersey has done a poor job of making the case that an expansion of charter schools is beneficial, or of demonstrating how the success stories in the best-performing schools could, or should, be applied to traditional public schools. That, after all, was the original idea behind the movement: to allow experimentation that could provide templates for low-performing schools.

Indeed. And the same sort of hype will be wheeled out in New Zealand to justify charter schools, vouchers and the whole panoply of privatised education. Yet as the New Jersey report also points out:

A 2010 national US evaluation of charter schools by Margaret Raymond of Stanford University found that only 17 percent outperformed regular public schools, 46 percent had learning gains comparable to regular public schools and 37 percent had gains that were worse than regular public schools. It also should be noted that many of the better-performing charter schools tend to have fewer special needs students, fewer limited-English-proficient students and fewer low-income students in the mix.

By some estimates, there are 5,000 charter schools in the US, or about 5% of all primary and secondary school schools, and serving about 3% of the total school age population. The results so far have been mixed, at best. Yet in a time of economic hardship in New Zealand, the Key government is throwing money at an educational experiment – on some of our more disadvantaged children – that appears to be being driven by political philosophy and expedience, rather than by any likely educational benefits.


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    1. 16 Responses to “On charter schools”

    2. By Elyse on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Hear, hear, Gordon. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

      There can occasionally be an upside to charter schools, like the Waldorf system opening one in Los Angeles and thereby making the excellent Steiner system available to families who can’t afford private education. But mostly it enables marginal groups like right wing religious zealots to use taxpayer money to indoctrinate low income kids with creationism and other spurious theories under the guise of improving education for poor kids.
      This is so depressing. The morons in NZ have elected a govt that’s trying to turn NZ into a mini USA. Look across the pond, people, and see how well it’s working over there!
      “National Standards” is a copy of another failed USA policy (No Child Left Behind, GW Bush’s “brainchild”). It pits parents and the govt against teachers and is a howling disaster. Test material is all that’s taught (no art, music, no practical skills, no critical thinking), kids are pigeon-holed and made to feel like failures if they don’t “test” well.
      NZ used to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was something we did really well. Already, under Key’s govt, our pubic schools are being deprived of funding.This will take even more money from the public school pot.

    3. By Relic on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      This piece should be sent to all parents in the land. Great point about existing choice. The resourcing between different decile schools is biased enough already, not to mention integrated and privates. The “don’t know-don’t wanna know” non voters loom large in all of this. So those that are informed and do give a damn are going to have to charge on regardless.

      ShonKey was in hiding from RNZ for 3 years and now he is back. What a gutless wonder, I mean superb tactician. Still the Nats are only a heart attack or two or a Richard Worth, Melissa and Pansy away from numbers trouble.

    4. By Mick on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Key has little interest in “objective evidence”, in fact he is deeply distrustful of the idea. Like many New Zealanders, and the Pope, he prefers the clarity provided by unmediated access to his own instincts/ideology. When challenged on the lack of evidence in support of bootcamps, Key responded “yes, yes, we are aware of the research but this government believes they will work”.

      In Key’s case the malaise goes further. He is contaminated by the market-first perspective and by his history as a trader – everything can be sold, everything is available for purchase. When tackled on BBC’s Hardtalk re scientists’ criticism of the impact of intensive dairy-farming and the poor state of NZ’s waterways, Key offered to provide alternative scientists who, when prompted/prodded, would say the opposite.

      This degree of ignorance in a man of Key’s intelligence is depressing and galling. He’s clearly capable of being a very good prime minister – it’s just that he’d need to wean himself off dogma and get to grips with the idea of science first. Apparently he’s not interested.

    5. By Tim on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Great piece again Gordon. Wake up NZ, the right wing agenda is here. National’s true agenda disguised by the Act trojan horse. Key is a liar who has been denigrating and undermining teachers and schools for three years and now has a great excuse for privatisation by stealth. i have faith that NZ will wake up to this and predict his next term won’t last the distance. The cracks are showing and we don’t like what’s underneath.

    6. By Peter on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      I voted to keep MMP, but to allow the dogma of a clearly failed “Party” to become the country’s policy in order to get into power is an appalling situation. Key is indolent enough not to have wanted these schools and be banking on them failing, in the way he gave the nod to Brash’s nonsensical plan to catch up with Australia and then ditch it when the tide had turned. But why risk the wrath of the whole teaching profession in this way?
      Suddenly, with Shearer in the frame and three years of Banks and Peters clogging up the airways , this is looking like the last term for Mr Key.

    7. By Graeme Edgeler on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Just why a charter school couldn’t fit into this existing framework of almost umlimited choice is something of a mystery.

      The Nat/ACT agreement appears to envisage exactly that, suggesting that the provision for special character schools in the current education act will be used to create charter schools.

    8. By Johanna on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Is this really a result of MMP? It is equally likely that the concept of Charter Schools appeals to John Key just the same as to the ACT Party.

      But if it is the result of MMP, so what? New Zealanders gave National, ACT and United Future enough votes to form a government.

      The unfortunate truth is the Labour Party was too weak to make a go of the recent election. Right now they are trying to select a leader while all this sort of nonsense is slipping through.

      Having said that – offer an Integrated School the opportunity to shake off the Education Review Office and instead strive to meet National Standards. I know which option I would choose!

    9. By Gary Chiles on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Why anybody would want to copy a nation which claims that guns are good, but cannabis is bad, is beyond me.
      I’m struggling to think of anything we have ever copied from the USA that has had a positive outcome for us.

    10. By Kate on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      Hello all leftist voters who did not split their vote in Epsom, and allowed Banks back in. Certainly he’s being used as an excuse for National ultra right policy changes, things we heard nothing about in the election. But if he hadn’t, and Dunne hadn’t been returned, Key would not have the excuses he so nefariously required.

      Now, it’s back to the streets and petitions to stop the reactionary roll-out.

    11. By MrSmith on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      I think this is a red herring, what Key really wants is the schools/mantainance/property hocked off through PPP’s, we are just being asked to look over there! just another negotiation with the public Key style.

    12. By sunny on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      This is an educational coup! Vouchers, ACT’s policy, are next. Less than 1 of the country voted for the ACT party. Less than that knew this was coming.

      The special votes aren’t even in yet for God’s sake….

      And you…Maori Party, Green Party..think long and hard about the children who will suffer under this already proven to fail experiment and pull the rug from under this One Banker/ One Wanker Government-in-waiting!

    13. By Paul on Dec 6, 2011 | Reply

      This is National policy all the way. Very convenient and gutless for them to say “Act and MMP made us do it!”
      National Standards confuse parents and exhaust children and teachers’ time and energy. National now cannot hide from the fact that they were designed to judge which schools and 5 year olds are ‘failures’ and need a Charter School to save them.
      Yes 50,000 educated teachers in unions have vested interests. We believe in and provide quality world class public education. We would not work in under-resourced schools if we did not.

    14. By Chris on Dec 7, 2011 | Reply

      Throwing stones is easy. How about a solution?
      The aim of charter schools was to allow philanthropists to put more resources into schools in return for allowing them to have some input into how that school runs. If you want more resources and you are not prepared to pay for it yourself then, with some governance, why not?

      Yes there are examples of “crackpot” implementations but if you start from a simple premise that someone with money wants to help kids and doesn’t think that the current system is all that good… Do you let them have a go? Or not!

      If we are informed participants we have a choice of where we send our kids. If the school is bad it will fail… If it is good innovation, make sure that the benefits are spread fairly..

      Or we can continue tweaking and poorly implementing ideas from other countries.. Who benefits from that?

    15. By Kevin on Dec 7, 2011 | Reply

      Interesting that the government is using evidence-based research to inform teaching but the government is refusing to look at any research for any of its education policies!

    16. By Laura on Dec 7, 2011 | Reply

      This is one of the best responses I have read. As stated above, a copy of this should be sent to all parents in the country.

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