What I have learned from watching TV

By Jay Kuten

Feeling the pressure of the inevitable, we converted our television to Freeview last year. For awhile, we were pleasantly surprised to find a second channel that carried interesting programming besides the Maori channel - Channel 7.

The channel carried great shows that appeared to respect the intelligence of its viewers - shows like the lectures by Harvard professor Michael Sandel on moral reasoning.

Then the Government pulled the plug on the channel for reasons yet to be explained, and we were plunged back into television wasteland.

It was out of boredom and channel surfing that I tuned in to what passes for debate in Parliament. A to-and-fro of sorts broke out between Labour's Grant Robertson and Act's John Banks. Banks is Assistant Minister of Education and, owing to his presence in the governing coalition with National, he has been able to pursue his agenda of bringing in charter schools.

Banks, like his arch-conservative counterparts in the US, describes charter schools with the euphemism of public-private partnerships which critics say actually describes public tax money leading to private profit.

These schools had been promoted in the US as an alternative to the failures of public schools to make up for disparities in achievement between minority children and white children. However, in the national evaluation of charter schools, comparing them with public schools, 17 per cent of charters got higher scores, 46 per cent were no different, and 37 per cent were significantly worse than public schools.

Moreover, some charter schools provided significant opportunities for financial corruption and sweetheart contracting, owing to their lessened oversight and diminished transparency as compared with public schools.

That's where the debate between Robertson and Banks caught my attention. Robertson asked Banks a series of pointed questions regarding the lack of transparency in the proposed legislation. Proposed New Zealand charter schools, unlike regular public schools, will not be subject to the requirements of the Official Information Act. Assistant Minister Banks consistently evaded giving any reason for this but claimed instead that, as those schools were responsible to the Minister of Education, and as the minister was subject to the OIA, that was sufficient transparency.

Robertson, quite rightly, pointed to Banks' own unwillingness to front up with information on his dealings with Kim Dotcom and asked if that experience were the basis for the approach taken in the charter schools legislative proposal. Banks never answered the implicit and explicit charge.

While the questioning had a sharp edge, it seems warranted in view of the credibility issues that adhere to Banks owing to his convenient amnesia over Dotcom's $50,000 contribution to his mayoral campaign.

And then there is the Minister of Education herself. Hekia Parata has become the centre of controversy for her attempt to increase class sizes, her inept handling of the prospective closures of schools in Christchurch and her partial responsibility for the disaster that is the Novopay system.

Last year, her predecessor, Anne Tolley, demonstrated her own lack of sensitivity in demanding that Christchurch students maintain the required schedule of sitting exams despite their recent experience of the terrible earthquake.

Parata is continuing that tradition by her tone-deaf insistence on a tight schedule of school closings and mergers, just as the students affected have only partially recovered from the upheaval that the earthquake caused in their home lives. If ever there was a reason to go slow in altering the safety that school continuity provides, the experience of Christchurch children is it.

In US President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address, he clearly stated his intention to guarantee early childhood pre-primary education for all children.

In this, the US is following leads undertaken by New Zealand and other developed countries. The question remains as to New Zealand's own determination to follow the failed examples in America of increasing class sizes or of charter schools.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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