Saturday, 8 June 2013

A Step Forward

Charter Schools Approved, But . . . 

Charter schools are now legal in New Zealand.  The first will open in January/February 2014.  Thirty-five applications have been received.  The Ministry of Education has indicated that three or four will be selected to commence.

Thirty-five applications is a fair number.  The restriction to such a small number being given approval in 2014 unfortunately gives the impression that charter schools in New Zealand amount to little more than a pilot or experiment at this stage.  This will deter serious players.  Why make an enormous investment in time, money, and effort only to have the whole programme shut down when the government changes (which could happen as early as next year)?  Thus, what we will have represented in the applications thus far are "early adopters", possibly the more desperate, probably the less substantial and more experimental. Moreover, the resulting impression will be inevitable that of the thirty-five applications, the vast majority (about eighty-five percent) were sub-standard and unworthy.

Arguably the government had to restrict the numbers of initial charter schools because it simply does not have the money to fund more of them.  Fiscal constraints bite.  But this is not strictly true.  Education funding is on a per-capita basis.  Every child taken out of a state school into a charter school is fiscally neutral in principle.  The state school will receive less funding; the charter school will receive more.

What will be really critical is the content of the contracts negotiated between each charter school and the Ministry of Education.  (The New Zealand model has proprietors of charter schools constructed as contractors to the Ministry of Education.)  What is important here will be the degree of state prescription and controls embedded in the respective contracts.  The early signs are not good.  The level and frequency of reporting to the Ministry already to be required of charter schools is far too extensive.  Most school will require a full time "reporting officer" to comply with Ministry demands for reports, compliance, and responses to ministerial queries.  Bureaucratic management cannot help but be true to itself: it always seeks to impose more and more rules, reports, and compliance to ensure "quality".  It is the proverbial kiss of death, making the profession unattractive to gifted teachers.

Theoretically charter schools are intended to remove the stultifying bureaucratic overlay that currently chokes government schools.  We have serious doubts that this will be achieved.  Rather, we fear charter schools will progressively tend to become government schools in drag, with variances being around "special needs" (schools made up of pupils from Maori and Pacific Island populations), or "special interests" (schools focusing upon the musically gifted or pupils with special sporting abilities), or "career preparatory" (schools orientated to certain careers, such as the military or industrial.technical trades).  There is nothing wrong with any of these variants--but all exist already within the government schooling complex. 

If, on the other hand, the charter schools programme also gives the nod to schools with diverse and distinct pedagogical views and educational philosophies--and the contracts reflect such diversity--the outlook will be more positive.  We will see.  But such schools will also be subject to hysterical criticism from educrats, teacher unions, opposition political parties and the media which long ago sought safety and respectability in running with hares and hunting with hounds.  Politically they will be more difficult to sustain. 

But charter schools will have one huge potential advantage that can not be under-estimated.  Pupils will attend only at the behest and request of their parents or care-givers.  Under the government school model, children compulsorily attend a local school.  Wherever the state compels or provides parents become negligent and careless.

Charter schools will have to compete for pupils; parents will have to persuade the charter school to take their progeny.  Enrolment and attendance will more likely be framed as a privilege, not a right.  Smart charter schools will exploit this to the maximum, demanding and requiring a lot of parental involvement in, and engagement with, their children's education.  This factor alone, if properly captured and exploited, will boost learning achievement by an enormous amount. 

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