The legislation published this week to provide for charter schools in New Zealand contains a new name for them. They will be designated "partnership schools", for the good reason that all state schools in this country already have charters. Documents of that name have been required since the 1980s when schools were also put under the nominal control of parent-elected boards of trustees.
The intention at that time was to give schools more freedom to establish their own character and develop their own way of meeting national education requirements. But somewhere between the Picot plan, as it was known, and the revised version called "Tomorrow's Schools", most of the autonomy disappeared. About 90 per cent of every school's charter was written to a national template and boards of trustees were given a limited role.
This time the original idea has survived. Partnership schools set up under the terms of the Education Amendment Bill will have all the autonomy envisaged for them by the Act Party in its coalition agreement with National 11 months ago. People permitted to set up a partnership school will have complete discretion to manage it as they see fit, make any rules they think necessary and need not employ registered teachers in all teaching positions.
Like a state school they will be funded from taxes, cannot charge fees and cannot select pupils. If they receive more applications than they can accept they must give priority to siblings of present or former pupils and hold a ballot for all other places.
A partnership school can be ordered to accept a pupil expelled from another school, though since the school may have special characteristics the expelled pupil's parents would have a say.
The school will have a contract with the Education Minister that will set out objectives and performance standards it must meet, with reporting requirements. The contract will also set its maximum roll, the curriculum it will teach, the qualifications it will offer and state the number or percentage of positions that must be filled by registered teachers.
There appears to be no requirement for the principal to be a qualified teacher but in that event a "professional leader" would have to be designated to oversee teaching practice. The school owner - "sponsor" in the legislation - cannot be an individual unless he or she forms a company for limited financial risk. Sponsors can be for-profit or not-for-profit organisations.
The legislative conditions look sound and reasonable. They are the result of painstaking effort by a former Act president, Catherine Isaac, who engaged educational professionals as best she could. The profession has always been protective of its control of public schooling and reluctant to cede room for outside initiative.
Not many educationists have shown much interest in the opportunity Act's proposal presents to them to set up taxpayer-funded schools with a difference. Surely the entire sector does not share their unions' opposition to public-private partnerships in education and the possibility, most unlikely, of profits from it.
This bill, once passed, offers teachers the chance to innovate with schools on a different scale, with different hours, amenities and priorities, disciplined only by the need to satisfy national qualification standards. Many other professions offered public funding for new proposals would jump at the chance.
But if teachers do not take it, others will. It will be up to the minister to ensure the legislation is a charter for ventures that are educationally respectable and worth a try.