The Politics Of Charter Schools

- Liz Gordon

Since the early 1990s, the libertarian Right in New Zealand has been attempting to borrow policies from other countries that disrupt State schooling. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Business Roundtable brought Polly Williams, an African-American legislator, to New Zealand to advocate a voucher system. Within a couple of years she had changed her mind about vouchers, saying they were not benefiting her constituents in the ways that had been promised. She was the first of a succession of people with daft educational ideas brought here by the Roundtable and others. Some argued to privatise all schools, others to revoke the law of compulsory schooling. They were all mad, really. And now, like a flu epidemic, charter schools seem set to sweep across our nation, brought by the ACT Party, a 1% rump which is all that survives of Rogernomics in New Zealand.

Charter schools have been around in parts of the United States for nearly two decades. In a highly bureaucratised system, they offer endless possibilities for groups to practice their educational passions. They range from shop-front schools in highly deprived areas that attempt to serve the needs of defined communities, to all-out ideological monuments to anti-union, authoritarian models. Many have a strong community focus; others have introduced for-profit management of schooling. It is impossible to describe the typical charter school, because there is no such thing. Some US charter schools are downright loopy, for example the creationist schools that teach the Bible as the curriculum. Others are segregationist, especially the immersion language schools in Hebrew, Mandarin, Russian and other languages, that cater to immigrant communities. There is an increasing (and widely opposed) trend for charter schools to move into high-performing areas – away from the city centres and into the suburbs.

Charter schools were recently evaluated by a team from Stanford University. Only 17% of US charter schools surpass State school outcomes, and nearly 40% are below average. If charter schools were a good educational option, after 20 years we would expect to see an improvement in the international ranking of US students in literacy and numeracy. There has been no such improvement, and the US ranks significantly below New Zealand on all such evaluations. It is therefore evident (no surprises here) that the push by the ACT Party for charter schools is based on politics and not education. Further, there is no hope that charter schools can do what is claimed for them in the Coalition Agreement:

“The proposed charter school system is targeted at lifting educational achievement in low decile areas and disadvantaged communities where educational underperformance has become the norm. It is designed to provide greater flexibility in governance and management including the ability to attract top quality teachers, prepare and inspire children to achieve their potential and be accountable for doing so, and to better meet the particular needs of local communities”.

US Style Charter Schools Make No Sense Here

The first thing that needs saying is that charter schools, US style, make no sense here. New Zealand schools are highly autonomous, and a lot of work is already being done to improve success rates in the poorest schools. Also, parents have the ability under existing legislation to start a new school under certain conditions. In Christchurch, Discovery One and Unlimited are examples of such schools. Any 21 parents can already call for a school to be created. And, there are already indigenous schools to protect and foster the Maori language.

The second point is that much work has gone in to reducing the number of small schools over recent years to make the system more efficient. Yet here we are about to start up a whole lot more. There are other resource problems. Charter schools have to recruit their students from existing schools, which means those schools lose resources (teachers, support staff, operational funds) and will therefore get worse. It is not a zero sum game. In a cash-strapped system, neither is it very efficient. Charter schools in the US are responsible for providing their own buildings and facilities out of the normal grant given to schools. Unless they can attract lots of external funding, charter schools will have to do more with less, as it were.

In summary charter schools are irrelevant, expensive and educationally poor alternatives to the current system. Yet they have a seductive charm: perhaps the idea that charter schools might serve their communities better than the current system - even though Tomorrow’s Schools was predicated on schools being run by local parents freed from central bureaucracy. There is a valid argument that all New Zealand schools are already charter schools. The proposed system is not, however, based on the community, shop-front end of the charter schools spectrum. From the first announcement, it was about bringing business models, business partnerships and “for-profit management groups (likely to offer multiple charter schools)”, as the coalition agreement puts it.

It’s About Profit & Bringing Business Into Education

Surprise, surprise, it’s about profit, contracting out, and bringing business into education. It is also about anti-unionism, performance pay, alternative curricula and individual “teaching practices”. It appears to me that charter schools will require new legislation to meet some of these goals, however, as all State schools, including special character schools, are currently bound by the Education Act. It appears that the model preferred by the coalition is that of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), the largest such management group in the United States. KIPP is characterised by long school hours (7.30 am to 5 pm daily, plus Saturday mornings), contracts between school, teachers, learners and parents, strict discipline based on the school community “shunning” those that misbehave and high aspirations.

There are two accounts of KIPP schools. The first is of amazing success and high achievement for the most deprived students. The second is of high drop-out rates, selective intakes, burnt-out teachers and much lower achievement than expected. This should not be surprising. Everything about charter schools is contested, even after 20 years in the United States. I get alerted through Google to all press stories about charter schools from around the world. The list below is from a one-week period earlier in 2012, and clearly demonstrates the high levels of debate and opposition that still occurs. Will this be us, 20 years on? I hope not.

Sleazy, Silly, And Segregationist: Current Media Stories Tell The Tale

Charter schools are highly divisive in the United States. Protests for and against their setting up abound, and many are very controversial. Ten examples:

  • Charter school with a troubled past wants to open in Norton (a school with a chequered past wants to move into an area where the public schools are rated “excellent”).
  • Rally brings out supporters in favour of reform (the previous day there had been a report of a rally against this school, which intends to offer Mandarin immersion schooling, thus taking money from the overall system to spend on one group of minority nationals).
  • Charter schools will bleed under-funded Montclair District even more (funding being switched from State to charter schools).
  • Anti and pro charter rallies planned for de Hart Centre on Friday (this is about charter schools attempting to migrate from the troubled city centres to the suburbs).
  • Charter school could face probation (After three years of D grade assessments, this Florida charter school could face sanctions).
  • Pro charter school TV ads air as General Assembly convenes (in Kentucky, a series of ads attack the performance of State schools).
  • Company behind Lake County charter school proposal had problems in Ohio (a failed charter school moves from one state to another).
  • Mavericks charter schools don't live up to big promises (a charter school chain with big boasts but an appalling record – only 15% of students graduate).
  • West St. Paul Charter School Closes Suddenly; Families Scramble (many charter schools have major budget woes which impacts on their sustainability).
  • Charter schools get win in White Hat suit (a group of charter schools handed over 96% of the operating funds they received from the Government and a company provided services in return. When a problem arose, the company refused to open its books, despite the money being from the Government – but now it must open up!).


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