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Pathways-ED: Chatter about the charter!

Stuart Middleton
2 February 2012


I really thought that the whole Charter School thing would simply die away but no, the Government is keen to pursue the idea.

Well let’s get a few things straight. The development of Charter Schools in other countries was intended to produce a new kind of school that could challenge the conventional schools. So what are the key characteristics of a Charter School?

1.    Charter Schools are freed from the direct control of a Department of Education or an education board or a local authority.

In the USA and the UK schools are typically under the tight control of a department of education, a schools district or board. The charter schools were set up to free them from this and to give to each school some autonomy.

Tomorrow’s Schools gave to New Zealand schools exactly the same level of autonomy that Charter Schools have.

2.      Charter Schools have a charter.

So does each and every New Zealand School. Unlike New Zealand schools where the Charter is between the Government and the local community (as represented in the Board of Trustees), the overseas Charter Schools could have such Charters between any number of groups and the Government. But actually there is some evidence that where the Charter is with a community-based group, the Charter School is likely to be more successful so we are already on the right road!

Our integrated schools and independent schools have a similar arrangement where the “Charter” is between the “proprietors” and the Government.

 3.    Charter Schools have the freedom to appoint their own staff.

So do all New Zealand schools. We forget that New Zealand schools have an autonomy that is unparalleled in other English speaking-countries.

 4.    Charter Schools are bulk funded.

So too could New Zealand schools be bulk-funded and indeed that was the intention some time ago but ideology won out in the end and it was withdrawn. It remains the last great freedom that New Zealand schools could have and there will be little accountability in the schooling system until it is achieved. So let’s not think that we need Charter Schools to achieve this.

 5.    Charter Schools have a special focus or special character.

So to can New Zealand schools and indeed some have in their charter the right to focus on a special character. We have not exploited this to any great extent. Charter Schools in the USA especially have a special character that is related to an interest (performing arts etc) or a discipline (STEM is popular) and so on. We could be much more adventurous in this area and the only progress we have made is to see a handful of primary schools have a special focus on technology. Of course the church schools have a special character, so too do the kura kaupapa.

 6.    Charter Schools select their students usually by ballot.

We use this where there is demand but the difference is that Charter Schools have no zone and they compete for students across a wider range of the community. Since it takes a certain kind of parent /caregiver to seek these opportunities for their children (and I have no issue with that) it is a selection of a selection that finally get to go to them.

 7.    Charter Schools attract private money and sponsorship.

This is a peculiarly American thing. Private money flows easily to US schools and colleges – it is simply the American Way. Indeed Bill Gates set out to put right what he saw as one of the key things wrong with the entire world – the American High School. The other thing wrong with the world was, in his view, communicable diseases. He has this week announced that his sole focus would now be on these diseases.

There is no tradition of private funding of state schools in New Zealand and what examples we have are valuable to the schools but relatively minor in nature.

8.    Charter Schools have been set up to be the panacea.

What Bill Gates discovered was that there was no panacea in education. Quality is quality; good is good and better is better.

Like most school systems, Charter Schools are a mixed bag – some work well, some fail and most are indistinguishable in their outcomes from the government system they sought to replace. We do not need an experiment or trial in New Zealand to find out all that is abundantly clear already.

The risk we take with the Charter Schools effort is to be distracted from the facts. All New Zealand schools have the advantages of a Charter School and the challenge to those who would make changes is to see that they are all, without exception, excellent Charter Schools.

And that is the big wake-up call. It is the Government that is the body holding the Charter for each New Zealand school and with that, comes responsibility. We are a small system and well within our grasp to get things right in every school. Then we can hold our heads high and say that New Zealand got the Charter School thing right.


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