A Taste Of Hurricane Katrina Treatment For Christchurch

- John Minto

Most of us remember the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina which laid waste to the city of New Orleans in 2005. President George Bush was widely derided for the slow response to help the low income communities most affected but his Government wasn’t slow to act when the city was rebuilt. New Orleans residents lost their public schools, public health centres and public housing. The city was rebuilt as a model of privatisation - a case of moving from one disaster to another.

Private investors were thrilled – they like the guaranteed income streams and regular, reliable profits which come from private companies providing Government services. But privatising schools and public services is always unpopular so natural disasters are often used to drive this corporate agenda. And so low income areas of post-earthquake Christchurch are to undergo the application of what author Naomi Klein describes as “shock doctrine”* with the privatisation of public education through charter schools without public debate or meaningful consultation. *Jeremy Agar’s review of Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” is in Watchdog 117, April 2008, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/17/06.htm. Ed.

When John Key was asked why the public had been blindsided by the charter schools proposal he said “well that’s MMP for you”. If you believe in the tooth fairy then you might believe Key’s assertion but it’s clear the charter schools decision was made long ago. The July 2011 appointment of Lesley Lockstone as our new Secretary of Education was a pointer. Lockstone is an import from the UK where she has been a passionate advocate of “free schools”- the UK version of charter schools.

And don’t think this is a trial either. Charter schools of various sorts have already been trialled for up to two decades in the US and elsewhere and have failed. The most extensive study of these schools was carried out by a Stanford University research team in 2009. The study found 37% of charter schools showed achievement results significantly less than public schools, 46% showed no difference and just 17% showed any improvement. The jury is back – charter schools are a failure. As the research director Margaret Raymond put it “We are worried by these results. This study shows we’ve got a 2-to-1 margin of bad charters to good charters”.

Using The Poor To Advance Agenda Of Rich

This won’t stop John Key because improving student achievement is not his aim. Instead the corporates are using the poor to advance the agenda of the rich. So what should New Zealand be doing about the fact so many children, disproportionately Maori and Pacifika, are leaving school without even a Level One National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) qualification? This is a huge cause for concern but the problem is not underperforming public schools, useless principals or hopeless teachers as John Key would have us believe. Instead it’s the economic policies which have grown the gap between rich and poor faster in New Zealand than any other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country in the past 28 years. Whenever this gap widens then social problems proliferate and education underachievement becomes endemic in low income areas.

All this is well established and well understood but inconvenient for the small but powerful minority who don’t want their private greed exposed as the cause of the problem. Best to cover your backside and point the finger of blame elsewhere. Even better if you can use the crisis you have created to justify even more damaging policies. The New Zealand public education system is excellent. Our State school students regularly top students anywhere in the world. In the most recent OECD education report New Zealand was ranked fourth out of 34 OECD countries in reading literacy, fourth in scientific literacy, and seventh in mathematical literacy. Our kids are world beaters, our teachers are stunning and our public schools are outstanding.

So why do we never hear our politicians praising our world-beating education system? Why has the Minister of Education been silent on our successes? Why did the Prime Minister John Key tell the nation just three days before the election that New Zealand schools were letting our kids down? Imagine if our athletes did as well at the Olympic Games as our public schools do compared to other countries. Imagine the euphoria and celebrations. Imagine John Key wallowing in the reflected glory of athletic success. But not in education. Simply put, the National government derides public education to have us believe our public schools are bad and in desperately in need of some “private sector discipline”.

Problems Are Simple & Solutions Straightforward

As well as changing tax and incomes policies to shift the recessionary burden off low income families we should be ensuring our kids are well fed through breakfast and lunch at schools; making sure they have stable quality housing so families aren’t cold in winter and kids don’t contract Third World diseases; increasing resources to schools based on education need. We should be making sure families have decent incomes so kids aren’t shuffled between parents, grandparents and other relations so that every Monday morning in South Auckland the equivalent of an entire primary school of children change schools. How can these kids in “transience” ever benefit from what a high quality school can offer?

These things would mean that our excellent public schools and hard-working, dedicated teachers could concentrate on teaching and learning for the benefit of all kids. And instead of employing an educational leader from a country with a poorer performing education system which is going down the failed pathway of privatisation we could employ someone from a country near the top of the OECD rankings – a public school enthusiast from New Zealand for example. But in the meantime our kids will suffer through the undermining of good schools and good teachers working tirelessly to help the victims of Key’s economic policies. For Christchurch the manmade calamity of privatising education is set to follow the natural disaster of the earthquakes.


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