Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – "A View from the States"

written by Ben Riley, Director of Policy and Advocacy, New Schools Venture Fund

I’m tremendously excited that Stuart asked me to offer my “View from the States” on New Zealand education policy. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, I am keenly interested in New Zealand’s education system and I’m eager to learn more through this partnership. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Recently, Stuart blogged about pending legislation to create charter schools (or as you are calling them, “Partnership Schools Kura Houora”). Given that the organization I work for, NewSchools Venture  Fund, has funded charter schools for more than a decade, I thought it might be helpful to share my perspective on US charter policy in the hopes of informing New Zealand’s nascent interest. I’ll begin with three general comments and then offer a few specific observations on your pending legislation.

First, pay careful attention to authorizing and oversight of charter schools. The basic theory behind charter schools is that you offer greater flexibility in return for higher accountability. That accountability, however, turns out to be trickier to establish than many expected when charter laws were first introduced. It turns out that parents are not always “well informed consumers” when it comes to selecting schools for their children; as a result, we see low-performing charter schools continue to operate in the US longer than a pure, market-driven choice model would suggest. Similarly, we’ve also learned that it’s just as difficult to close low-performing charter schools as it is to close their non-charter counterparts. Schools serve as cornerstones within our communities, thus to close one – charter or otherwise — almost inevitably results in controversy and political strife. The key is to ensure the charter authorizers are independent and empowered to make tough decisions — the National Association of Charter School Authorizers offers good guidance on this subject.

Second, make sure charter schools have equitable access to the resources they need – school facilities in particular. In the US, charter schools are supposed to have equal access to public resources as those provided to traditional schools. While that aspiration remains unevenly realized throughout the states with respect to funding, an equal if not bigger challenge is ensuring that charter operators have access to public facilities. Obviously, it’s very hard to provide quality instruction if you’re struggling to find physical space to teach children.  

Third, create clear paths for innovation and success within charter schools to translate into change within the entire education system. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the “charter movement” is that new innovations and successful school models within the charter sector have, with rare exception, remain isolated from the traditional school system. Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that good charter schools can provide a high-quality education to our most challenged students, the practices common to these schools are considered “unique to charters” and thus irrelevant. And this prejudice flows in both directions, by the way: There are many interesting innovations happening in the traditional sector that charter operators never discover.

To address this, the Gates Foundation is investing US$25 million in seven “City Compacts” to promote local collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools, in the hopes that this will lead to the spread of good instructional practice. This model is one New Zealand should consider from the outset to ensure the charter sector remains connected to the larger education system.

With those general observations as background, I have read through New Zealand’s Cabinet Paper and Regulatory Impact Statement on developing a charter school model. On the whole, the vision accords with what we’ve learned in the US and strikes the right balance between autonomy and accountability. Moreover, as I am only beginning to understand how your system works, I hesitate to offer any suggestions without knowing the local context. That said, I flag two items for further consideration.

To begin, I would caution against permitting for-profit operators (or “sponsors”) to run charter schools. The reality is that any for-profit business must be run as exactly that, a business, with a fiduciary obligation to maximize profits. One problem with that, however, is that if a charter school runs out of resources in the middle of the school year, it’s supposed to shut down – with the brunt of real harm falling upon displaced students and irate parents. Just as importantly, allowing for-profit operators to operate charter schools inflames the suspicion of some that the charter movement is a cover for “big business” looking to profit and privatize public education. Perhaps this tension is not as vibrant in New Zealand as it is here but at least in the US, many people still don’t understand what charter schools really are or what purposes they serve.

Similarly, the proposed legislation allows faith-based organizations to serve as school sponsors/operators. In the US, mixing public funds with private religious instruction results in spectacular political fireworks. We are about to revive this highly contentious debate over what we call “vouchers,” which provide direct payments to parents that they can use to send their children to schools of their choice, including private religious schools. New Zealand policymakers might ask themselves – are they prepared to provide public funding to a school devoted to, say, promoting Creationist theories on the origin of humankind? In my opinion, the whole thing is a massive distraction that takes away focus on instructional quality. Better to scrap this and spend the bulk of political capital on developing clear guidelines on what’s expected of charter operators, and holding firm on accountability to ensure quality.

In closing, I am excited to see New Zealand pursue charter schooling and direct resources to provide high-quality school options to parents and students living in challenged communities. By addressing some of these issues at the outset, I believe New Zealand will be better positioned to achieve the student outcomes you desire.

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