Editorial: Charter trial success will be money well spent

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Small parties do not get much credit for the occasional policy they are able to put into practice. The governing party tends to take over the policy and make it its own. Charter schools may be an exception. The policy is firmly grounded in the Act Party's philosophy that public money should be spent as consumers choose, not as state servants decree.

If Act had its way, the entire budget for public schools would be divided by the number of school-age pupils in the population and each would receive a voucher to redeem at the school that suited them. National has agreed to no more than a trial of this idea.

Initially it was going to fund charter schools - or "partnership schools" as it prefers - only in disadvantaged areas of South Auckland and Christchurch. But when applications were invited and evaluated, Education Minister Hekia Parata was sufficiently impressed to widen the pilot. This week, she and Act leader John Banks announced five applications had been accepted for schools in Northland and Albany as well as in South Auckland.

It is no surprise that three of the five are Maori initiatives, one in Whangarei proposed by the He Puna Marama Charitable Trust, one in Whangaruru by the Nga Parirau Matauranga Trust and one from the Rise Up Trust in Mangere. Charter schools in the United States have attracted most interest from minorities who feel mainstream education is failing them.

Nor is it surprising that another applicant wants to offer a military-style academy for youth in their final years of secondary school. The Vanguard Military School will be at Albany where other private primary and secondary schools have been established in recent years.

Only one of the successful applicants proclaims itself Christian, and the Villa Education Trust does not propose to teach religion at its South Auckland Middle School. Fears that public money might be used for teaching biblical fundamentalism have been allayed. The Destiny Church did not make the cut.

The final selection has not assuaged the teacher unions and the Labour Party. The unions say they might instruct their members to boycott the schools - which would be odd because their main objection to charter schools has been that they might employ unregistered teachers.

Labour's new leader says: "The idea that public funds will be used to fund schools that neither teach the curriculum nor employ fully qualified staff nor are subject to the Official Information Act is barking mad and we will not have it."

The schools will be obliged to teach the national curriculum which, thanks largely to Labour governments, is not very prescriptive about what is taught. They will want qualified teachers and the information they must supply for their state funding will surely be available. Labour's and the unions' real objection to charter schools is one of principle and power.

Equality in education, they believe, requires not only state funding but state management of schools, as well as state control of teacher training and, not least from the union's point of view, national bargaining over teachers' pay and terms of employment. Even in the US, teachers' unions still fiercely oppose charter schools.

As in the US, charter schools' futures will depend on their educational ideas producing the desired results. These schools are just an extension of the idea that diversity is healthy, choice is fair and an element of competition never did a public service much harm. This can now be put to the test.

These schools will be under intense scrutiny for their use of public money. If they work, even for a small number of students, that money will have been well spent.

- NZ Herald

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