The NZ Charter Schools Debate #1

December 6th 2011 at 5:04pm, By Dave Guerin

I’m starting a series of posts on charter schools in New Zealand, a policy announced yesterday in the ACT-National coalition agreement. My aim in the series will be to explore the issues around charter schools in an informative manner. I personally support the idea of charter schools, but not at all costs, so I’m looking forward to refining my thinking as I go along. I belong to the Education Forum, which generally supports the idea of charter schools. I also did some work in the 90s on an international comparison of private school regulatory frameworks and an analysis of innovation in the schooling sector. Now you know my starting point, but I hope you’ll find the series useful as my goal is to improve the quality of debate, not propound my point of view. Apologies in advance to my readers focused on tertiary education, but the series should still have some relevance.

The charter schools policy was released about 24 hours ago and we have had a deluge of stories on it, but most people have cherry-picked a few facts that support their initial position. Blog posts have been written by The Dim Post (and again), Kiwiblog, Offsetting Behaviour, Just Left, Teaching the Teacher, Keeping Stock, Not PC, Gordon Campbell (the most thoughtful) and Homepaddock. Media releases have been put out by NZEI, PPTA, the NZCTU, the NZ Teachers Council and the Maxim Institute. And there a few news stories but most of them simply connect up quotes from politicians and unionists – here’s one example.

In this first post, I want to explain what a charter school is, what ACT’s election policy did and didn’t contain, and start discussing the importance of context. In future posts, I’ll review the new policy and look at what we can pick up from international experiences, including relevant research. The series will continue over an extended period.

What is a Charter School?

A charter school can be whatever you like and people will inevitably point out that all schools in New Zealand have a charter. That said, there is reasonable agreement about what a charter school is in educational policy circles. The following para condenses a Wikipedia definition, according to my view of international usage of the term.

Charter schools receive public money but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter. Charter schools are opened and attended by choice. Where enrolment in a charter school is oversubscribed, admission is frequently allocated by lottery-based admissions systems. Some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a certain field — e.g., arts, mathematics, or vocational training. Others attempt to provide a better and more efficient general education than nearby public schools. Some charter schools are founded by teachers, parents, or activists who feel restricted by traditional public schools – others are established by non-profit groupsuniversities, and some government entities or companies.

This wasn’t in ACT’s policy!

If you go to ACT’s website, you’ll find no direct mention of charter schools in the education policy (although they did mention school boards setting teacher pay directly and other deregulation), but it is in Don Brash’s campaign speech on education (alas, I read all the parties’ election policies and statements for my ED Insider site). I’ve excerpted some key sections below.

The third priority is to allow successful and established state schools such as Auckland Grammar, Epsom Girls, Rangitoto, McLeans, and Christchurch Boys’ to become Trust Schools. Such schools would be exempt from the usual constraints of Ministry management and given control over their own affairs.

…In addition, there should be no reason why educational entrepreneurs such as David Selfe, let’s call them edupreneurs, should not be able to set up completely new schools to attract government funding. These proposals may seem radical, but in fact the danger is not that New Zealand might stray too far from orthodoxy by adopting choice, competition and entrepreneurship in education. The real danger is that we will be left behind.

…Ladies and gentlemen, the ACT Party presents a clear choice on education this election. We can choose to continue with the status quo. We can choose to ensure that there is limited choice, limited innovation, and that only the few can access it. If that’s what you want, then any other party will deliver it.…It is a choice to be able to see your child’s share of the education funding go to the school that you choose… You needn’t pay twice, and those who can’t afford to pay once would have choice too.…It’s a choice to let successful schools manage themselves as trust schools. It’s a choice to let groups of innovative teachers set up new schools like Corelli and Tū Toa.

Now I’m sure some people will say that “charter schools” is not mentioned in the text above, but anyone familiar with schools policy issues would recognise that what Don Brash talked about could be characterised as charter schools according to the definition above. To be fair to those surprised by the policy, not many people paid much attention to Don Brash’s speeches J

Context Is Everything

Any educational initiative should be judged by the context in which it operates and that’s even more important when we start looking at international comparisons (the Teachers Council’s Peter Lind makes this point). When I talk about context in this series, I’ll refer a lot to the “regulatory framework”, which is shorthand for all of the policies around curriculum, staffing, facilities, student welfare and the many other areas where schools face regulation of some sort. It is crucial that we consider what will and won’t change in any charter school initiative, as it will impact upon results.

In the US, charter schools have often been a reaction to local education systems that can be maddeningly bureaucratic. In NZ, we wouldn’t put up with the “rubber rooms” of New York City, where teachers alleged to have done a bad job were required to turn up and…do nothing. The rubber rooms have since been removed but there are plenty of other stories of bureaucracy in the US – in such an environment, freeing up the regulatory framework to allow new charter schools to operate has been appealing to many people.

In New Zealand, we don’t have quite the same bureaucracy as in the US. We have quite a bit of devolution to local boards of trustees and our curriculum is quite open – there are no prescribed textbooks as in the US. We do have considerable central control over property and staffing, and those are areas where charter schools are likely to have greater freedom – more on that later.

Differences in the regulatory framework (both for general and for charter schools) lead to quite different charter schools. Over the coming months we’ll hear more about the systems in different US states, Sweden, the UK and elsewhere. We’ll also probably hear about existing legislation that allows for different types of schools to develop in New Zealand, like designated character schools or kura kaupapa Maori. In all those cases, we should be alert to the context, rather than just lauding or denigrating the results.

Let’s Not be Too Serious

The NZ Herald highlighted a reader comment that brings some light relief to a rather political topic: “It can’t hurt to try it out a little first. As long as we don’t end up with the ‘Woodstock Bourbon School For Boys’.”

16 Responses to The NZ Charter Schools Debate #1



December 6th, 2011 at 5:19 pm



December 6th, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I’m looking forward to the debate. Thanks for getting this going.



December 6th, 2011 at 5:43 pm


Mark Goodwin in the July 2011 issue of The Political Quarterly “Education reforms after New Labour: Big Society or Back to Basics” provides an excellent overview of some of the contractions around centralisation vs decentralisation in English educational policy settings. This includes a thoughtful overview of the placement of the role of Charter schools.



December 6th, 2011 at 5:58 pm

that was “contradictions” of course. i must have been thinking about the level of education funding in pounds sterling 🙂


Stephen Day

December 7th, 2011 at 8:56 am

The Education Forum still exists – I thought somebody had staked that zombie several years ago?


Dave Guerin

December 7th, 2011 at 9:41 am

Stephen, it’s fairly quiet. Maybe your error was in trying to stake a zombie…that’s the vampire solution.

Dave, ta for the link – useful to track the rhetoric. My media monitoring showed an explosion of interest in the issue yesterday, but I’ll try to keep this series focused on exploring the factual issues rather than analysing political views. I think there’s a good supply of political comment on this issue.

Dean, thank you for introducing me to a journal I had never heard of. Since it’s behind a paywall, I shall take your word on the content 🙂


Jim Doyle

December 7th, 2011 at 1:41 pm

You are right Dave, context is everything. Let’s face it, we have no idea what Charter schools mean in the NZ context. There is little point at this stage in making any comparisons between something that has yet to be defined here and a variety of models in various jurisdictions.

I suspect that the good people in ACT believe that schools in low decile areas can be sucessful if they are well led and managed and can operate in a less regulated environment than orher schools. If that is the case then surely it would make sense to apply the model to all schools.

We shall all watch this space with interest.



December 7th, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Surely the only way in which charter schools could lead to improved outcomes for students is through allowing the implementation of certain practices and policies that will benefit students, and which cannot be implemented under current models.

Given that, from an evidence-informed policy perspective, rather han ideological special pleading, it’s incumbent for advocates of the charter school model to identify a) what is currently inhibiting good outcomes in our schooling system, b) why existing schools cannot address these, and c) exactly why/how the charter school model will address these without creating new inhibitors (at micro, meso, and macro-levels). Given that many people seem to be saying that our current system already shares many of the features of charter schooling, I personally suspect that B and C would be hard to demonstrate.


Dave Guerin

December 7th, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Ta Jim.

NBH, you raise some good points but you are presenting a one-sided debate. Existing schools should also answer those same questions to justify ongoing investment. I certainly agree that any educational initiative should effectively address perceived problems above and beyond any negative side-effects, and compare well with alternative initiatives. But let’s not privilege the status quo too much by loading the effort on one side.

Anyway, there will be plenty of time to examine all these issues – next post I’ll even look at what ACT is proposing 🙂



December 7th, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I would argue that I’m not being one-sided, but simply asking for a basic intervention logic to be developed before a new policy is put in place. But then I would say that. 🙂



December 8th, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Hi Dave
Sorry for being late to the debate in the throes of assignment writing. First of all thanks for the link second of all I think the introduction of charter schools needs to also be seen in conjunction with two other policies teacher supply and also national standards.

The first Rob Salmond on pundit (too lazy to link) touches on is the idea that charters will likely be staffed by largely beginning teachers which perhaps is concerning given that the first few years on the job are the ones where teachers need the support and oversight of senior staff.

The second one is national standards. I think in the future we’ll move away from a system of using overall teacher judgement for national standards as questions of validity come up. At present there’s some research somewhere in the NZCER saying that standards only have a .75 correlation of a correct OTJ. But the more I think about it, the more I think national standards have less to do about reporting to parents and more to measure effectiveness between schools in the future to justify a greater educational crisis. Charters with their success in relation to these particular assessments are the answer which seems to be the experience of the US and UK.

Given those two countries performance on PISA I think perhaps instead of analyzing if charter schools are the answer we need to ask what do successful school system do enhance student achievement?



Dave Guerin

December 8th, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Ta Stephanie. I think Rob’s issue about teachers was a bit overdone as it didn’t consider the NZ context. before making a call on the HR impact, I’d want to have a clearer idea of comparative pay and conditions structures. Never mind, I imagine this series will last a few months…

I’d be concerned if we placed too much weight on national standards in assessing charters or any school as they are only part of the picture. NCEA is a more rounded assessment but even then, different things are important to different children and parents.



December 8th, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Any enthusiasm I feel for Charter schools is driven by one thing – the sad sight of the public education infrastructure the way it is today. Successive governments have turned the ministry and review office into a double headed monster. The NAGs and NEGs have been filled to overflowing. The paperwork occupies reams in the filing cabinet as policies and fads circle around. It does not need to be like this.


Kataraina Nock

December 11th, 2011 at 11:25 pm

If there is a chance of improving resources which often is an issue in a low decile community then for that reason alone it is probably worth raising your hand to be a Charter School.


Nikitin Sallee

December 14th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Kia ora, Dave. From my view in Los Angeles, yours is the most sensible, even-handed contribution I’ve seen since the National-Act coalition agreement was announced. I’ll jump in here if I can add anything from my perspective as former Chair of a Wellington elementary school board and parent of Kiwi kids who benefited from magnet and charter schools within the otherwise scary Los Angeles Unified School District. Readers may wish to start here – – the annual report of Renaissance Arts Academy, which my daughter attended. It’s a public charter school, admission by lottery, with 71% non-white students in a working-class neighbo(u)rhood in LA. (Charter schools in LA get 100% of the operating grant a public school would get, but zero for capital – i.e. if they succeed they do so on a smaller total budget than the equivalent public school.)


Dave Guerin

December 16th, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Thanks Nikitin – will check out that school.

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