Difference in opinion:charter schools

February 2012


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The New Zealand Government’s recent announcement of the new charter schools policy has met with mixed reactions. Here, two experts voice their opinions.

Paul Drummond, President of New Zealand Principals’ Federation

New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce charter schools. Every school in New Zealand is a charter school. They’re great! Kiwi charter schools operate within a high-quality, high-achieving public education system, in which every child, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, social status, ability or disability, has the right to a free, secular and compulsory education at their local school - because Kiwis believe every child equally deserves that right. To fulfil this promise, professionals have also developed a world-class curriculum based on our New Zealand Curriculum with additional input from local communities to add flavour and give voice to those communities. The curriculum is sufficiently broad to enable all children an access point to learning regardless of their individual motivations.

Our charter schools emerged from the Tomorrow’s Schools educational reforms of the 1980s. Regional Education Boards were disestablished and communities were empowered to take control of their local schools, governed by a board of trustees. Schools became self-managing. The charter document became the accountability link between the Ministry of Education and the Board of Trustees. Kiwi schools have flourished under this system, and in achievement they now rank right up amongst the very best in the OECD. Alongside other top-ranked countries, we do not sit complacently. Like them, we still have 14 per cent of children who require even more help than our curriculum can offer and we want those children to be part of our Kiwi success stories too.

The first charter schools to surface in the United States did not follow our model. They were very differently motivated. They follow a neoliberal philosophy that is about government divesting itself of public responsibilities on the premise that the market knows best. American charter schools are not about providing free public education in any fair and equitable way to the American children. They are about government relieving itself of the responsibility for the social ills of American society and passing those problems on to the education sector. They are about distancing government from the responsibility to fully fund public education and to privatise. They are about closing down public education and replacing it with public private partnerships (PPPs), shifting the responsibility of educating young Americans more and more on to the private sector. Indeed, there are chains of charter schools in the US headed by corporates, and intended to be profit making. The precursor to setting up charter schools was installing an assessment culture in schools so that the government could identify those schools they deemed ‘underperforming’. Such schools could be closed down and replaced with charter schools. The notion of charter schools has severely weakened the idea of public education for all and made private schooling normal. Ultimately that is the goal of charter schools: to normalise privatisation. And the overall result? Well, what we do know is that the US is steadily dropping down the OECD education achievement ladder; a 2009 review indicated that, overall, charter schools perform more poorly than public schools. The other outstanding feature is that charter schools in America emphasise social divisions. There are the “winner” schools and the “losers”.

In New Zealand we have our own unique version of charter schools that puts quality public education and the achievement of children first. Our charter schools give power and control to our communities and they are successful. We stand to lose all of that if the New Zealand Government goes down the track of Americanising, privatising and “corporatising” our excellent system that is the envy of our overseas colleagues. Kiwis are not Americans. New Zealand is not the US. We are proud to do things the Kiwi way. We don’t need to import American models and emulate them. We already have our own unique version and it’s the only version Kiwis want.

Hon John Banks, Associate Minister of Education

Education holds the key to this country’s future prosperity, which is why I believe that charter schools are the most exciting education policy innovation that I have seen in my 35-year political career.

There is an urgent need for charter schools and it grows out of the following paradox: New Zealand has some of the best teachers, and most promising students, in the world – yet we have some of the worst educational inequality.

How do we know this?

International league tables show that the majority of New Zealand students finish school with results very close to those that top the world – if they do not top the world outright.

Meanwhile, New Zealand is home to some of the most embarrassing figures in the world when it comes to our legacy of underachievers. In any given year, one in five students will leave school without any qualification whatsoever. Business New Zealand has reported that 40 per cent of working-age adults lack the basic numeracy and literacy necessary for the workplace.

We know that our teachers can teach – and that our students can learn – because so many of them do it extraordinarily well. Sadly, however, many do not. Our challenge now is to fix New Zealand’s legacy of educational underachievement. That is where charter schools come in.

Charter schools have the potential to solve the great paradox: hardworking teachers, promising students and disappointing results. Many good teachers and principals are frustrated and stifled by bureaucracy.

Charter schools can provide greater flexibility to better meet the needs of their particular community, including the ability to attract high-quality teachers and to create quality learning environments to better prepare and inspire children to achieve their potential.

An example of what a charter school could look like is Tu Toa School near Palmerston North. With its special emphasis on Tikanga Maori and sport, Tu Toa has stepped away from mainstream pedagogy and achieved outstanding results for its students – but it has had to fight to be able to offer this type of innovative education that has been so successful. Charter schools will remove the bureaucratic hurdles that Tu Toa faced. The policy presents an opportunity to create more easily quality learning environments such as theirs.

Around the world, we see the Swedish with a long established – since 1992 – structure where charter schools are a normal part of the education system. The Canadian province Alberta has had charter schools since 1994, while David Cameron’s government in the United Kingdom is currently establishing them.

The commitment to introducing charter schools means that, over the next three years, we will see New Zealand children and their parents introduced to this popular, ever-expanding global innovation.

I hope that the teaching profession embraces this golden opportunity to introduce more innovation, flexibility and success into our world-class education system.