On charter schools

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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