John O'Neill: Charter schools totally undemocratic

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The Government's public-private partnerships experiment raises serious concerns, writes John O'Neill

John Banks' Act Party is responsible for the charter school policy.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Banks' Act Party is responsible for the charter school policy. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Education Amendment Bill before a parliamentary select committee provides for a new type of public private partnership (PPP) school in New Zealand.

The Government has gone to considerable lengths to trumpet New Zealand's first PPP to build and maintain school buildings at Hobsonville Point. It is, however, a lot quieter about the far more radical changes that its bill proposes for school governance, funding, accountability and teaching quality in its other PPP model.

These other PPP schools are to be called 'partnership' schools, but the euphemistic label masks the fact that the so-called partnership will only be between the Government and a private 'sponsor' (which may be for-profit and have no prior connection with the local community), that parents will have no automatic right of representation on the PPP school governing body as they do in state schools, and the Minister of Education may establish the school against the express wishes of the local community. This is undemocratic and patronising.

Internationally, similar 'charter' or 'free' schools have been claimed to provide more choice for families and communities than existing state schools, innovative models of teaching and learning and, consequently, gains in the education and life opportunities of students who attend them.

The heady political rhetoric is invariably that more 'choice', 'standards' and 'diversity' will greatly improve the lot of disadvantaged families and students. In contrast, more than 20 years of independent research evidence suggests this ideological mantra has proven harmful in practice for many children, so much so that the chances of the most disadvantaged students getting any benefit from a PPP school may be no better than the toss of a coin. This is an immoral natural experiment with children.

The bill proposes to replace transparent parent representative governance and local community accountability in publicly-owned schools with a commercially sensitive contract between the Government and the sponsor which will then be able to found a private school at no financial risk using free money from the state. This is corporate welfare.

While the Education Act 1989 requires the minister to consult publicly and assess the likely effects (positive and negative) of establishing a new state school in the local community, the bill proposes to allow the minister to establish a PPP school on the advice of one or more handpicked persons, based only on the individual sponsor's application. This is crony capitalism.

State schools are subject to the Ombudsmen Act 1975 and the Official Information Act 1982. State schools are required to produce a detailed annual plan setting out student achievement targets and to report against those to the Government, parents and the community.

The minister and Secretary of Education have extensive powers of intervention when a state school causes concern. The new PPP schools will negotiate the terms of their commercial contract with the Government, will not be required to provide public information on request in the same way as state schools and the minister and secretary may only intervene in an emergency. This is wilful neglect of the Government's social contract.

The Education Act 1989 already allows for the minister to establish a state kura or designated special character state school, to vary its governance arrangements and to approve alternative curricula - provided only that the local parent community requests it. The new PPP schools will sit outside the state system and are established solely at the whim of the private sector. This is privatisation for the sake of it.

The Education Act 1989 requires all teachers in state and private schools to be qualified and registered with the New Zealand Teachers Council. The new PPP schools will not be so required.

John O'Neill is a professor of teacher education at Massey University's Institute of Education.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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