In describing Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua as "patronising", "immoral" and exhibiting "wilful neglect of the Government's social contract" Dialogue writer John O'Neill shows a woeful neglect of the facts.
Fact 1: The many undoubtedly positive features of regular state schools that he cites, such as parent representation on school boards, and the requirement of schools to produce detailed annual plans with targets and employ teachers registered with the Teachers Council, have not saved 52 per cent of Maori students and 41 per cent of Pasifika students from failing to achieve NCEA level 2.
Fact 2: Communities around the country want this initiative. It has the "total and unequivocal support" of Te Maru o Nga Kura a Iwi o Aotearoa , the Iwi Education Authority, comprising 23 Kura a iwi [tribal schools] and their respective iwi. They are specifically attracted to the Kura Hourua model because it combines freedom to innovate with a high focus on accountability and achievement of results.
In their submission to Parliament on Partnership School legislation, Iwi Education Authority chairman Dr Toby Curtis notes the "consistently poor status quo results for Maori ... with no respite in sight from an unresponsive and unempathetic mainstream system. Kura Hourua can be a circuit breaker with us, an agent of desperately needed change."
There is also strong demand for the opportunity from Pasifika communities along with many other groups from within disadvantaged communities.
Fact 3: At the heart of this model of school is a binding, legally enforceable contract with the Crown that will require any organisation seeking to establish a school to meet specific, measurable performance goals including student academic achievement, student engagement indicators and financial, legal, health and safety and organisational performance.
A school unable to demonstrate very clearly how it will attract and retain disadvantaged learners and help them succeed, and how it will engage with their families, will not get through the rigorous authorisation process.
Fact 4: They are a school of choice. No teacher will be forced to teach at one of these schools and no student will be forced to enrol in one. They will receive no more funding than the per-child amount received at a regular state school.
Fact 5: Neither the legislation nor the information explaining this initiative use the words "untrained and unqualified" to describe the teachers who may be employed by these schools. The ability to employ some teachers who are not registered with the Teachers Council simply provides for the opportunity to draw on the wider pool of trained and qualified teachers working in private training establishments. While there are many great teachers who are registered with the council, registration is not of itself what makes a teacher great, nor is it a guarantee of ability or suitability to engage with disadvantaged students.
Fact 6: International evidence, notably the Credo research cited so often by opponents of Partnership Schools, has produced some conclusive findings. While results vary by state and by school, US charter schools have improved results for all students from low-income backgrounds, minority groups and those with English as a second language. Those with the best legislated models of charter school get consistently good results across the board.
In Sweden, after 21 years' experience and data from 400 free (charter) schools and millions of students, the results are strong and clear: all students are doing better, achieving better grades and higher rates of participation in tertiary education.
We have been fortunate in New Zealand to draw on the vast body of evidence now available on this type of schooling, and put together a model that incorporates the best of the best.
Fact 7: Partnership Schools are an opportunity for the teaching profession. The Swedish teacher unions did not oppose the introduction of free schools there, seeing them as providing good professional development opportunities for their members. Subsequent surveys have proven them right.
In opposing Partnership Schools, education academics and teacher unions are doing a disservice to both the teaching profession and children.
The true test of the Government's social contract is whether it improves the life chances of those children who are being left behind by an overly prescriptive education system that frustrates innovation.
Catherine Isaac is chairwoman of the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua working group.