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March 5, 2018 | by  | in Features Splash | [ssba]

The Cases For and Against Charter Schools

Did you know New Zealand has our very own military school? I didn’t, until a few months ago. Just like that episode in The Simpsons, it has been giving kids fancy uniforms, berets, and teaching them foot drills alongside their maths and english. Vanguard Military School is the most well-known “partnership school” in New Zealand.

Partnership schools come with many different names: academies, charter schools, Kura Hourua. Whatever you want to call them, they will soon be a thing of the past, if the Labour Party gets their way. Much to the anguish of Dancing with the Stars contestant and ACT Party leader David Seymour, the new government is currently in the process of scrapping charter schools. The Education Amendment Bill 2018 has been put forward to Parliament, passed its first reading and is currently in the select committee stage. This bill will, “remove the partnership schools model from the New Zealand education system, with transitional provisions for existing partnership schools until their contract is terminated or it expires”, effectively killing off this short-lived experiment in state/private partnership education.

But what exactly is a charter school? If you’re reading this there is a very slim chance you went to one. They have only been around since 2011 and there aren’t a whole lot of them. In the most basic of definitions, a charter school is a private school set up by a local community, iwi, business or philanthropist, etc., to run independently of most Ministry of Education rules while still receiving tax dollars to fund itself. It’s the halfway point between an entirely private education and a state-run school. It’s a libertarian’s wet dream, all the money they could want, with none of the regulations.Charter Schools

Charter schools have been extremely controversial from day one. I spoke to David Seymour at first via his Snapchat before he insisted I call, as “there’s too much to talk about with this important topic over Snapchat”. I called him,  in the hope of getting both sides of the story and figure out why people should give partnerships a chance. Mr Seymour’s basic argument for partnership schools was one of “tearing up the script” and “freedom of choice”, two key ideals that partnership schools provide. Seymour told methat “you just have to look on Facebook to find story after story of countless kids who hated school…skipped class…dropped out”, etc., until they turned up at a partnership school. He insists that these schools turn out more unique individuals, generate new options for kids and go against the “one size fits all” approach of the Ministry of Education. Mr Seymour seemed very intent on this theme that state schools these day turn out cookie cutter students and do not provide the correct “freedom of choice” for students and their parents. Having a literal military school be the poster school for individuality and ”ripping up the script” may sound ironic but to be fair to Seymour, Vanguard continues to produce top quality students with great academic marks, and perhaps most importantly, many of the students come from low socio-economic areas in the country. These students like going to school, and have been protesting to keep their school. I don’t know about you, but when I was in year 12 I was not taking to the streetsto confess my love for Burnside High School, as cool as it was. A big attraction Seymour has to partnership schools is the innovation they can inspire. Seymour insists that “if it was left up to the Ministry of Education… schools like Vanguard Military Academy would never even be thought of in the first place”, let alone be the fully functioning schools they are. It’s not just military style education that partnership schools offer, while Seymour admits that Vanguard gets the most press because it’s so unique and “I mean, I probably would never even have thought it was good idea, but here we are”, there are schools like Te Kōpuku, which are targeted specifically at Māori education. Now, David Seymour insisted that the negatives you hear about Partnership schools were “absolute bullshit”. Seymour insisted  that the clear majority of news being spread against partnership schools was false propaganda, spread by teachers’ unions who were “terrified of partnership schools” as the model “proved to New Zealand” that kids can be educated without the harsh regulations of a ministry, or the forced contracts of a union. Seymour pressed home his point that teachers’ unions are to blame here as “organized labour is always afraid of competition”, and that there is “a lot of crap out there” when it comes to partnership schools, and before we parted ways insisted once again that it was all “absolute bullshit”. It is clear David Seymour has a lot invested in these partnership schools — the Member of Parliament was part of the working group that set them up in the first place, and has championed their effectiveness for years. But in the interest of fairness, I thought it would be good to take a look at this “absolute bullshit” being spread around.

Charter schools have attracted a lot of attention for being poorly managed, bad for teachers, and bad for kids. Famously, the first ever charter school to open in this country practically failed in the first three weeks and required the Ministry of Education to intervene as staff abandoned the school. Drugs became a problem among the students and the administration spent half of their annual budget on buying… a farm. While the idea of charter schools may be a libertarian’s wet dream, the outcome of the first charter school in New Zealand was music to sceptic’s ears. The Labour Party could easily point to this failed experiment to demonstrate why the Ministry of Education and its regulations were so important.

Peter O’Connor, from the University of Auckland — and perhaps more importantly, from the New Zealand Educational Institute, the largest teachers’ union in the country — holds the opposite view to David Seymour. O’Connor insists that, with the amount of money spent per student at a partnership school being almost five times higher than a state school, the money could be better spent among already existing state schools to help kids across all of New Zealand rather than the very limited number of kids currently in partnership schools. O’Connor also says that partnership schools create a wedge between public and private, to increase and hasten privatization in education. He adds that charter schools are a direct attack on the teacher unions, and that sits at the very heart of this experiment, not lifting achievement of children in poorer areas of New Zealand.

Partnership schools are a great way to look at the basic ideologies of political parties in New Zealand. One the one side you have the ACT Party libertarians insisting that partnerships are the future of education as they push freedom for kids, freedom for teachers, and freedom for parents. On the other side you get the Labour Party insisting that a lack of regulations are dangerous not just for the kids, but for the teachers as well, and will lead to drastic inequality.  The Education Amendment Bill is speeding through Parliament now, and unless some very determined protests or very convincing select committee applications are made, it seems that the short-lived partnership school experiment will be a thing of the past. That is, unless the ACT Party get back in to government any time soon.


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