The Transnational Corporation Capitalist Education Grab

Dressed Up As School Choice For Disadvantaged Kids (AKA Charter Schools)

- Liz Gordon

The charter schools saga is now so convoluted, such a fuzzy mess of motivations, aspirations, oppositions and justifications; that it is difficult to unpick. In one corner, for example, there is the Pacific Island community group in South Auckland, watching with concern the educational failure of their children, thinking that with funding and autonomy they could ensure success for the next generation. In another are many existing private schools, which yearn for the freedom they currently have to offer their particular brand of fundamentalist religion, or non-traditional education, all fully funded by the New Zealand taxpayer.

In the yellow corner is the ACT Party, that remnant of neo-liberal politics in New Zealand which still has some powerful friends, 25 years on from Rogernomics. Before it fades into oblivion, the charter schools policy gives it a chance to put a soupçon of privatisation into the stubbornly public schooling system.  Oh what fun! In the blue corner, though, watching the various shenanigans with significant interest, are groups that are neither community-oriented nor severely potty, unless of course you classify the serious pursuit of profit as potty.

What they see, in li’l old Noo Zealand (because they are mainly American), is the potential to set up a southern outpost of that growing new profitable venture, the for-profit charter school. Because what is a venture capitalist to do in the post-subprime, post-Ponzi, post-Madoff* era, where everyone is struggling to survive?  What is your average speculator to do, when things are so flat? *Bernie Madoff, a contender for the biggest swindler of all time, ran a pyramid scheme whereby original investors were paid beguiling dividends from new advances. These scams are still called Ponzi schemes, after Charles Ponzi, who provoked the 1925 Florida real estate bubble. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his $US50 billion swindle. Ed.

And the answer is to find the next best sure thing to put your money into. Schools fit the bill nicely, especially when the taxpayer foots all the bills. Like McDonalds, education is not something people have once only. The nippers keep coming back year after year, and the longer they stay the more money there is to be made! And the financial risk is virtually nil. Oh yes, and you look good doing it too. What an investment! The main problem might be how to bring the American model into New Zealand. Well, of course, the answer already exists - you franchise it. You standardise everything from the temperature of the hot fat in your vat, to the size of the hamburger buns. Oops, I mean the size of your classrooms and the number of hours spent on reading instruction.

US Education System Poor Model For NZ

There is one small problem to overcome. The US education system is much worse at educating disadvantaged children than New Zealand is. No matter how it is dressed up, it is policy lunacy to bring in American franchises to run New Zealand schools. Furthermore, there is the sad fact that charter schools have not met their promise to improve educational outcomes in the USA, either for individuals overall, or for the system as a whole. On his recent visit to New Zealand, I asked Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) founder Mike Feinberg why we should support charter schools, when after 20 years of them in the USA, they had not lifted the comparable performance of that country on international assessments at all. His answer was instructive, I thought. He acknowledged the point and stated that many charter schools were of poor quality, except of course for his.

The Working Party talks of ensuring that the “New Zealand model” selects only high quality schools, to avoid the failure of so many US charter schools. Such an answer, of course, sets KIPP up to be a likely import to New Zealand. KIPP is well positioned for this. Indeed, it may well be argued that the whole system, including massive changes to the Education Act which, in my view, add up to vandalism, is one big initiative to bring the KIPP franchise to this country. Feinberg’s recent visit, touring the country with Catherine Isaac in tow, strengthens that impression (Catherine Isaac, ACT Party President and businesswoman, was appointed by the Government in 2012 to head the Working Party investigating setting up charter schools in NZ. Ed.).

Incidentally, the changes proposed to the Act nicely mirror the key features of KIPP schools: use of non-teachers to teach, longer school hours and school days, complete curriculum freedom and the potential for corporate (as opposed to community) governance. New Zealand has an unfortunate history of throwing open the doors to other countries’ wacky schemes. Some of the stuff imported by the Rogernaut Labourites and the National Party in the 1980s and 1990s, in the name of competition, virtually crippled our country and made us more unequal and poorer. The best example in the schooling area is the widespread adoption by schools of Cambridge A levels, as a tool to raise their status. These exams existed until recently purely to provide a British qualification for Botswana and a few other African countries, but have now been repackaged as a quality good. But I digress.

KIPPBurger Hard To Swallow

The KIPP scheme looks good on the surface. Passionate advocacy for the poor child; a focus on high achievement; serious curriculum; hard work and good outcomes. The KIPPburger sure looks tasty. But there are some serious unanswered questions about the franchise:

  • KIPP raises at least $US40 million per year in corporate sponsorship, over and above the money given it by the public sector to run schools. Where does the money go?
  • KIPP pays its teachers on performance, but tends to hire young, unqualified teachers who stay on average two years and then leave, burned out by 70 hour weeks. As a result, the wage bill is low.
  • KIPP is focused heavily on US-style standardised tests. Its curriculum is narrow by NZ standards and about constant testing rather than constant learning. The children therefore learn to pass tests, but it is not clear how well prepared they are for life.
  • KIPP works on assertive disciplinary methods. Of course this appeals to a Rightwing government, which is always prepared to discipline the poor. But some of the examples given in the literature are of concern.
  • The drop-out rate of KIPP children at primary school level is 30%, and 40% for black males. The public system then has to pick up the pieces of a disrupted education.

Even if the aim is not to franchise KIPP across New Zealand, the changes to the Education Act open the door for private providers from anywhere to come into New Zealand and make a profit out of educating our children. They are, undoubtedly, circling like vultures as we speak, with the race to open the first charter schools in this country in 2014.


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