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 groups, universities, 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’.”