Exclusive: Wealthy American sees science and tech education niche in New Zealand

A wealthy American businessman wants to set up charter schools in New Zealand that he believes could lead to an education "revolution".

Marc Holtzman was pen-pals with his political hero Ronald Reagan and secured millions of dollars from Microsoft founder Bill Gates to found a charter school in his home state of Colorado.

He told the Herald that, while it was early days, he planned to see if Mr Gates and other acquaintances might help raise the $10 to $15 million seed money for a first New Zealand school.

The 54-year-old backpacked in New Zealand as a young man and has had his luxury Gibbston, Queenstown property on the market for $4.75 million for over a year, with plans to build again in the region.

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The Hong Kong-based businessman contacted Ngai Tahu about the possibility of working together to open schools as well as Act Party leader David Seymour.

In January he took a delegation, including Ngai Tahu's Sir Mark Solomon and Che Wilson, to the United States to look mostly at charter schools based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). Among the schools visited was the successful Denver School of Science and Technology, which Mr Holtzman co-founded.

In the visiting group was Mr Seymour, whose party introduced charter or "partnership" schools in a confidence and supply agreement with National, and Catherine Isaac, a member of the authorisation board that helps decide upon proposals for new partnership schools. All New Zealand members of the tour said they paid their own way.

Mr Seymour said Mr Holtzman's interest was "tremendous news", but knew it wouldn't be welcomed by education unions, which strongly oppose charter schools.

Ngai Tahu's interest in Mr Holtzman's proposal was outlined in a report presented by Mr Wilson and Sir Mark Solomon at the Iwi Chairs Forum at Waitangi last weekend. It was included in a booklet obtained by the Herald, and which contains reports from other working groups within the 65-person forum.

Mr Holtzman said he and wife Kristen planned to eventually move to New Zealand to raise their three children, all aged under 7.

"We believe the country can benefit from a Stem education programme," he said. "What we are talking about doing in New Zealand is really going to be revolutionary."

Sir Mark said he would report on the trip to the Ngai Tahu board in a week. He stressed nothing had been decided and said the presence of Mr Seymour and Ms Isaac on the tour came as a surprise.

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"What we were interested in was the teaching methodology and the results ... and to put it simply, it was outstanding."

Ms Isaac, a former Act Party president, said she was contacted by Mr Holtzman and the US trip coincided with plans to visit friends.

Marc Holtzman

• Most recently chaired Meridian Capital Hong Kong, a private equity fund. Colorado State's former secretary of technology has spent much of his business career in Russia and Eastern Europe.

• Struck up regular correspondence with former US President Ronald Reagan at 16 and later failed in a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in his home state of Colorado.

• Successfully approached Bill Gates to help fund the establishment of the Denver School of Science & Technology charter school.

• Hosted a breakfast roundtable on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, attended by John Key.

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