When the prescription for the first charter schools was announced last December, the Government was quite definite about their location. They would, it said, be introduced in disadvantaged areas of South Auckland and Christchurch. That was as it should be. The aim was to give parents in low socio-economic areas the option of a stronger learning environment if they felt their children were not getting ahead as they would like in state schools. Experience in the United States has shown that charter schools under the Kipp banner in poor neighbourhoods have proved the most successful.
Originally, it was envisaged that New Zealand's charter schools - or partnership schools, as the Government prefers to call them - would follow the Kipp (Knowledge is Power Programme) model. Increasingly, however, it is drifting away from that. The latest indication is the decision that the schools will not be under an obligation to accept pupils from their locality.
Charter schools, said Associate Education Minister John Banks, would not have geographic enrolment zones if demand for places exceeded supply. Instead, pupils would be chosen by a ballot. This means local children who miss the first intake will have to take their chances even though the school is specifically tailored to their needs.
The examples of slippage do not end there. The Government has started talking of faith-based charter schools. Among those to make inquiries about the concept are the Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which practises transcendental meditation.
The Government may have been flattered and somewhat relieved by such interest, but most people surely did not expect, and do not want, their taxes to fund faith-based teaching. Many of these groups will also not have a sufficiently robust record in providing education. Additionally, they can easily pursue other avenues.
The Green Party says that allowing schools to recruit pupils from outside their local areas undermines one of the Government's key reasons for agreeing to the charter schools policy as part of its coalition agreement with Act. This assumes the Government always intended that the sole aim of these schools was to tackle underachievement in disadvantaged areas. Its initial statements certainly gave that impression. They also suggested there was a good case for incorporating some sort of geographic enrolment zoning, even if, out of necessity, that would have to be fairly broad in scope.
This may still be possible. Government policy indicates schools could set geographic boundaries or requirements relating to their specialisation, as long as these are not designed to deny opportunities to pupils. That opens the door for schools in disadvantaged areas. It is hard to see how a zone that gives priority to local children - a school's area of specialisation - could be construed as denying anyone from outside.
According to a Massey University analysis of international charter schools, pupils enrolled in Kipp schools tend to perform better than similar pupils in American state schools. Other charter schools in the US have produced more chequered results, especially where there has been insufficient oversight. This evidence provides a compelling reason for the New Zealand initiative to concentrate on tackling educational underachievement in disadvantaged areas. That was the original intention. There is no reason to stray from it.