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SocietyMay 18, 2017

Charter schools: the case against

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Instead of pouring money into charter schools that on average achieve only middling results, the government should be supporting educators who know what works, writes Lynda Stuart, the president of the teacher’s union NZEI Te Riu Roa.

Further reading – Charter schools: the case for from charter school provider Villa Education Trust .

If you ever feel like being inspired by the potential for education to transform a child’s life, take a look at article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It describes how every child has the right to an education that: “develops their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” and prepares them for a responsible life, in a free society.

As signatories to this convention, New Zealand has promised this right to every single child regardless of race, gender, ability or disability. The problem is that for decades we’ve been denying this right to the very children who have the most to gain from it.

Large numbers of Māori and Pasifika children, and those with additional learning needs, have been systematically ignored by an education system that’s become less and less capable of recognising who they are, and responding to what they need to learn.

All but a tiny few of these children go to mainstream public schools. So it makes sense, that if we are serious about fulfilling their right to a meaningful and rich education, then the solution must be to refocus and resource the schools that these kids go to. Any other “solution” is a cop out.

Siphoning off public education funds and resources to a few charter schools does nothing to solve the failure of successive governments to resource public schools so they can deliver for the majority of Māori and other priority learners. The charter school experiment makes that failure worse.

But do they work for some so-called priority learners? Before I go there, I want to be clear on one point. There are some wonderful, talented people running charter schools. Many are Māori looking for a way to make education work for their tamariki.

I don’t blame teachers and parents for being impatient for solutions. I am too. My beef is with the architects of partnership schools, not those who work in them.

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Some of these schools are doing well but there have been spectacular failures. And on the whole, the results the rest are getting are fairly middling. Despite being touted as powerhouses of innovation, most charters are no more innovative than state schools. The difference is that they get two to three times as much money.

Buzz words like child-led and inquiry-led learning that you find on charter school websites are commonplace in public schools too. And while they boast about small class sizes, free uniforms, food, stationery, computers and transport, my response is: give the children at all schools the same level of funding, and watch them fly.

A recent review commissioned by the government found that several of the charter schools failed to meet their agreed targets. These included the two middle schools established by Villa Education Trust, which were also red-marked along with Vanguard Military School for higher than acceptable rates of stand-downs and suspensions.

Then there are the unknowns. We can only guess at the effect they’re having on local schools, who can’t compete with the glitzy vans, and nice new uniforms. The government has never bothered to find out.

So why is the government ploughing ahead with more charters?

There is a long, political history to charter schools, that is rooted in a belief that private businesses do everything better than the public sector does, especially if they can make a profit. It’s no coincidence that the Act Party touts charters as their biggest success story.

But the international experience is not good. Everywhere charter schools have taken off – the United States, Sweden, even in the UK – has seen a corresponding decline in educational standards. That’s because, as the OECD has reported, countries that do well on every international educational measure are countries that are focussed on equity, such as Finland.

This is why organisations such as NZEI are so worried about Act and National’s plans to expand the charter school experiment. For us, it’s no accident that the operations grant – the core funding for public schools – was frozen last year.

If the government is intent on keeping the size of the education pie the same, while carving more of it off for pet projects, the majority of kids will lose.

Instead, let’s look at what works for all of them. We know that kids need warm, safe housing, access to free health care, full bellies and parents not stressed by financial pressures.

We know that kura kaupapa work for our tamariki. Just last week, it was reported a decile one kura had the highest rate of scholarship success in the country. If it’s too hard to establish a kura, then lets fix that, rather than set up a lower standard option with fewer hoops to jump through.

And finally, kids in public schools – that’s most of them, remember – deserve the resources they need to learn, so they can achieve their full potential.

This is what we owe all our children, not just some. This is their right. Imagine the potential for our children and our country, if we honoured it.

Further reading – Charter schools: the case for from charter school provider Villa Education Trust .

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