Original aim was to add choice for same money.

What is going on with charter schools? Their justifying principle was fairly simple: they would receive funding for each pupil of no more or less than the state pays for each pupil in its own schools. Private enterprise, usually a charitable trust, would provide the foundation capital, the buildings and grounds as it saw fit, and establish a school that could offer a different character of education that could match state schools' results.

First, as the charter schools were starting to appear on the landscape over the summer, we learned one of them was using its establishment grant from the taxpayer to buy Northland farmland for its site, another began using its grant for radio and newspaper advertisements. There is nothing wrong with schools paying to promote themselves to prospective parents, as long as they do it out of private funds. State schools would not use their state funding for commercial advertising and nor should the charters.

What is this "establishment grant" anyway? Is it additional to the funding per pupil? Education Minister Hekia Parata said it was up to the schools to decide how to spend their establishment grant and that it was already clear $18.95 million allocated to them for establishment costs would not be enough. The sums were set before the Government knew what type of schools might be approved. It all begs the question, exactly how much foundation capital are the charters contributing themselves?

As if those discoveries were not disturbing enough, when the first charter schools opened this month we found two of them, in Northland, trying to send their pupils to nearby state schools for some subjects. That was not in the plan. If a charter school is going to take money for pupils' complete education, then "subcontract" part of its obligation to state schools, what is the point? The taxpayer could cut out the middle man.


No doubt the founding principle of charter schools is not as simple in practice as it is in theory. The cost per pupil of a state education may vary widely depending on the school's size and location.

There will be economies of scale in a big school that a tiny charter school cannot match. But if the charter operation has the greater flexibility and inventive freedom that we were led to expect, it will find matching economies and should function on the same rate per pupil as the nearest state school.

Some of the criticism greeting charter schools has been unfair. Labour's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, seems to believe it wrong that a charter school can attract teachers from a state school by offering higher salaries. That is perfectly fair if the charter school prefers to invest in teachers rather than, say, an assembly hall.

But it is not fair if, as Mr Hipkins calculates, the charter school in question has received funding of $19,664 a student compared to the average state and integrated school funding of $7000 a student. The minister may say the difference is in establishment costs but these are schools the taxpayer did not need to establish. Charters should not merely add needless capacity to the system - they were supposed to offer a choice for the same money.

They are an application of the principle of public-private partnerships which can too easily turn out to mean a public gift to a private clipper of the ticket. When we ran a poll on charter schools last October a majority of the public thought the money would be better spent in state schools.

If the Act Party plans to parade charter schools at the coming election it had better ensure they keep to the plan.

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