From the moment the Government announced plans to launch charter schools in New Zealand, there has been strong backlash from the teacher unions and some opposition parties.
The unions put up an intense fight, pointing to overseas evidence, particularly in the United States, where many charter schools had been unsuccessful. There was talk of corruption and students being cherry-picked to ensure those most likely to succeed are educated, while those that don’t maintain grades are quickly weeded out. Some charter schools in the UK – or free schools as they are called there – were described as being “dysfunctional”.
But international evidence could also be spun to show successful examples too. The Government clung to research that showed that American charter schools deliver better results for students from low income households nationwide, and evidence from Sweden that shows that achievement is higher in districts with more free schools.
By this stage the term “long tail of underachievement” had become a household phrase in relation to New Zealand schooling and there was a strong feeling that our education system was not working for many Kiwi students. At that time, 31 per cent of young New Zealanders, including 52 per cent of Māori and 41 per cent of Pasifika students, were leaving school without NCEA Level 2.
The Government was eager to offer an alternative to the public system to those for whom it wasn’t working, and so the Partnership Schools pilot – driven largely by the ACT party – was born. Five schools were successful in the first application round; Kura Hourua O Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, The Rise UP Academy, South Auckland Middle School, Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, and Vanguard Military School all opened their doors in 2013.
The main objection to charter schools was the threat they posed to public education, by their potential to take valuable funding and resources away from state schools. The PPTA felt the $19 million set aside for the partnership schools pilot could be better spent on the public system.
Over the next year, the union made life difficult for the charter schools. It asked its members to refrain from all professional, sporting, and cultural liaisons with the sponsors, managers, and employees of charter schools. A particular fray emerged when it was revealed that one of the charter schools, Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, was opened with the expectation that students could take specialist subjects like art, economics or trade studies at Whangarei Boys’ High School and NorthTec. The PPTA’s ban on interaction led to Whangarei Boys’ declining to allow the charter school students attending specific courses.
Three years on, and these objections remain, although the union has expressed some relief that the partnership schools in New Zealand do not appear to have emulated the worst case scenarios as shown in the United States.
The Ministry had always vowed it would keep a close eye on the quality of the education delivered at the schools and this was put to the test when Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru appeared to be failing. After much investigation, the Ministry kept its word and closed the school when it did not resolve its problems.
The pool of set-up funding for charter schools appears to be shrinking with each passing application round, making it less appealing for organisations and trusts to establish new charter schools. Meanwhile the Ministry has announced this year, the arrival of COOLs (communities of online learning) which can be likened to online charter schools. The sector has recoiled in horror.
It is relatively early days for charter schools in New Zealand and there have already been some fascinating learnings for all involved. With election year looming, it will be interesting to see what becomes of our partnership schools in the future. In our next issue, Education Review revisits New Zealand’s first charter school three years after it opened.
More coverage in Education Review:
Opinion clash: John Banks vs Paul Drummond: www.educationreview.co.nz/magazine/february-2012/difference-in-opinioncharter-schools/#.WCuCBmee3IU
Whangaruru’s closure and questions of quality: www.educationreview.co.nz/news/new-news-feed-issue/troubled-whangaruru-charter-school-set-to-close/#.WCuB5Wee3IU
Education Review visits New Zealand’s first partnership school: www.educationreview.co.nz/magazine/may-2014/not-for-the-faint-hearted-leadership-of-a-charter-school/#.WCuDMmee3IU
Bill to abolish them is defeated in Parliament: www.educationreview.co.nz/news/new-news-feed-issue-2/bill-to-abolish-charter-schools-is-defeated/#.WCuBiGee3IU