On charter schools, and DoL backdown at Pike River

Years ago and in a more innocent time, whenever advertising agencies wanted to spice up a product for local consumers they would use the word “ American” in the pitch – because back then, the United States was taken to be synonymous with all that was new and fashionable. Thus, American ice cream, American-style coffee. Why, its the latest, from America! Its all the rage… in America! American cars, American music… were cool, and they ruled.

These days though, the Act Party are probably the last outpost of the “made in America” idolatry, with Act’s enthusiasm for charter schools being the most recent example of the party’s inclination to swoon over second-hand imports from America, of early 1990s vintage. The government’s plans for local government reform – imported from Colorado, circa 1994 – are a case in point. Moreover, while money is scarce for everything else, taxpayers have also been tapped to fund a few ‘charter school’ experiments in publicly financed, privately administered education, and an Act Party apparatchik – Catherine Isaac – has been appointed to oversee the trials.

As Salon columnist David Sirota says in this recent article about charter schools, the motives for supporting the concept are many and various :

Parents wonder if they are better than the neighborhood public school. Politicians tout them as a silver-bullet solution to the education crisis. Education technology companies promote them for their profit potential. Opponents of organized labor….embrace them for their ability to crush teachers unions.

The educational outcomes so far – even in America! – have not been very encouraging. As Sirota readily concedes, there are some excellent charter schools. (Just as there are some excellent public schools.) However, at a system-wide level, there is no evidence that charter schools produce better educational outcomes overall, when all else is equal – and on several important social indices, they perform worse :

….On the whole, charter schools are producing worse educational achievement results than traditional public schools. For example, a landmark study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes discovered that while 17 percent of charter schools “provide superior education opportunities for their students,” a whopping “37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” Likewise, the National Center for Education Statistics found that charter school students performed significantly worse on academic assessments than their peers in traditional public schools.

These numbers might be a bit less alarming if charters were at least making sure to “not be school(s) where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated,” as [originally] envisioned. According to a new report from the National Education Policy Center, however, charters “tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools” — and in lots of places, they seem to be openly hostile to children who are poor, who are from minority communities or who have special education needs.

Even as a partial, cost saving solution, charter schools don’t cut it:

Some apologists might claim that for all their faults, charter schools are the solution to our education challenges because they are saving school districts money during tough economic times. But in many places, that’s not even close to true. Indeed, as evidence from Ohio to New Mexico to Tennessee to Florida to Pennsylvania suggests, charter schools are often more expensive than their counterparts, meaning taxpayers are paying a premium to underwrite a segregated system now producing worse academic results than traditional public schools.

Does this all mean that charter schools are inherently bad? Of course not; there are some terrific charter schools out there. However, the data do suggest that charter schools are not a systemic answer to America’s education crisis. In many cases, in fact, they make the crisis worse, not only exacerbating inherent inequalities, but also distracting attention from the real ills plaguing the education system — ills rooted in economic inequality and anaemic school budgets.

The real problem in public education, it would seem, is underfunding – as manifest in inadequate operational budgets for schools – and not whether the administration of the school is in private or public hands. That reality, Sirota concludes, isn’t sexy, simple or politically convenient — but it is the actual problem facing schools. And when the evidence of benefit is so thin on the ground, perhaps children shouldn’t be used as guinea pigs for a charter schools experiment that is being driven by ideology, not results.


The DoL back-pedals

As the Pike River investigation enters the home stretch, the Department of Labour has clearly chosen to pre-empt the inquiry’s likely indictment of the kind of safety culture that the department has been promoting for the past two decades, ever since the Health, Safety in Employment Act was passed in 1992. After twenty years of running down its inspection and enforcement capacity – and all but demolishing the department’s in-house technical expertise in the process – the DoL has belatedly discovered that employers can’t really be trusted after all, to run the nation’s workplace health and safety regime on what is an almost entirely voluntary basis.

In its submission to the Pike River inquiry, the DoL has finally seen the wisdom of taking a more active role in “high hazard” industries that have intrinsic dangers. As RNZ reported this morning:

It [DoL] will recommend a three way approach to health and safety involving the employer, workers and the regulator. The department is calling the new system the Three Pillars of Support and says it is internationally recognised as the best way to ensure health and safety is maintained in mines.

The system, which is used in Australia, involves a worker acting as an extra set of eyes and representing workers’ interests, alongside the employer and the regulator. Department of Labour head of health and safety Lesley Haines says the changes are a move towards more rules in some areas but not nearly to the same extent as in the past.

[Department of Labour press release here.]

Better late than never, I suppose – although it would be nice to think that this change of direction had been motivated by a genuine concern for worker safety, rather than by an attempt to pre-empt the Pike River inquiry’s likely condemnation of DoL’s ‘light-handed’ enforcement culture, and the related run-down of expertise within its inspectorate. It will be crucial, as the union spokesperson made clear within the RNZ report, that the work force gets to choose its own representative to the proposed “Three Pillars” process – and that any such advocacy will not be subject to retribution from the employer.

This story has a lot more mileage to it. As a result of Pike River – which was the disaster-in-waiting produced by a run down of mine safety in particular and workplace health and safety enforcement in general – the DoL is now facing the biggest shake-up in its corporate culture since the early 1990s. Struggle as the DoL will to retain the HSE Act, that legislation may need to be overhauled, top to bottom.


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