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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Political Porn With Hamish – Charter Schools, You Say?

November’s election ACT managed to secure several policy wins out of its confidence and supply agreement with National. The most commented and debated policy is the trial of charter schools.

The trial will allow non-profit community organisations, iwi, school trustees, faith-based educational organisations, and not-for-profit and for-profit management groups to run schools. Charter school boards will “set the length of the school day and year, set their own teaching practices, raise their own revenues, pay their teachers according to performance, and use any approved curriculum/ qualification.” Charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition fees nor restrict student access, except on geographical grounds.

The trial will take place in eastern/ central Christchurch and South Auckland. These areas have been chosen as the trial is “targeted at lifting educational achievement in low decile areas and disadvantaged communities where educational underperformance has become the norm.”

Following the trial’s announcement, there was much comment, questioning “where” charter schools came from, with suggestions that neither ACT nor National campaigned on the proposal. For example, see Angela Fitchett’s ‘We Can’t Afford To Let Our Kids Lose’ or Ian Leckie’s comments to TVNZ in ‘Charter Schools Plan Draws Strong Opposition’. Persons holding such a view point were ill-informed. In August last year, Don Brash called for the Government to allow parents greater choice in education, noting the success of Sweden’s “free school” model. By November, Brash was referring to charter schools in Alberta, Canada, as a framework New Zealand could adopt.

Since the announcement of the trial, there have been many claims made about charter schools. These have ranged from charter schools being ineffective, to allowing businesses to take over the education sector. Existing in order to lift educational achievement, comparing the performance of students at public and charter schools can provide a good basis to assess their effectiveness. Stanford University conducted a study in 2009, comparing American students at charter schools to “demographically matched” students at nearby public schools. The results showed that 40 per cent of students in charter schools performed on par with public school students, with 37 per cent significantly worse. Only 17 per cent performed significantly better.

Of course, there is also the belief that, due to pressure from competition, public schools are forced to lift their performance in response to charter schools. There is some evidence to back this up. In 2004, the United States’ National Bureau of Economic Research found in jurisdictions where there were both charter and public schools, there was a 1 per cent annual growth in end-of-year examination performance.

In Sweden, whose model Dr Brash praised, independent or “free schools” have existed since 1992, following a decision to allow public funding to be given to independent schools, at a comparable level to public schools. Since that decision, several hundred free schools have come into existence. Like America, there is question as to their effectiveness. Right-leaning British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, notes that free schools benefit children from wealthy backgrounds more than those from the poorest backgrounds. Further, attendance at free schools failed to lift educational achievement after the age of 16. The left-of-centre Guardian has previously reported that free schools “failed to raise standards and caused segregation”.

The most vocal opponents in New Zealand have been teachers, principals and education unions. Those opposed to the trial point out the lack of evidence indicating any benefits to be found in implementing charter schools. Peter Simpson, of the Principals Federation, has stated that competition does not work in the education sector whilst the Post Primary Teachers Association, PPTA, said that implementing such a model without greater research is a recipe for disaster.

The proposal has recently found support from a unlikely candidate, with former Labour MP for Tamaki Makaurau John Tamihere, calling for the trial to be extended to Waitakere in Auckland’s west. Tamihere told TVNZ’s Breakfast that west Auckland schools are failing the needs of the area’s parents, citing a third of students travelling to schools elsewhere. Tamihere says current principals blame failing communities and failing parents for poor school performance, and he believes the trial is a chance to address the “big failing tail” which currently exists in the education sector.

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