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Category: Charter Schools

When editorial licence become rant


Every now and then the NZ Herald[1] simply gets it wrong and they waste a lot of their ammunition in blasting away this morning at Charter Schools (known in New Zealand as Partnership Schools and in other places variously as Academy Schools, Free Schools and so on).

Take for instance the confident assertion early into their piece – “State schools would not use their state funding for commercial advertising…” Not much they wouldn’t! For some schools image is everything and the costs of this come out of their funding. The Herald might be employing a cute logic that says that funding sourced from elsewhere is not “state funding” but that argument is spurious. Decisions about spending are simply decisions about what is important and all money is capable of being used differently. But spending to promote itself is well established in the education system.

Then there is the fuss about the “establishment grant”. When a new school is developed in the state system the establishment grant is simply huge – principals are appointed up to two years previous to the opening of the school and their senior team a year before. Much money goes into the establishment board and so on.

Then there is the matter of charter schools requesting that students be able to access some subjects at state schools. One of the excellent developments over the past decade has been some increased fluidity in students accessing programmes in a more flexible manner. Some of this is across the secondary / tertiary line but some of it is also between secondary schools. It is a very good use of resources.

The Herald acknowledges that size matters in these arrangements and that issues of subject availability challenge small schools, state or charter. And it is not a question of inflexibility that suggests this course of action to charter schools – quite the reverse. Because they can act more flexibly (both with regard to use of time and use of money) they can present options to students that are tailored to individuals just as some state secondary schools seek to achieve but with some frustration in an inflexible funding system.

Then there is the claim that the funding levels of the charter school is almost three times that of a state school on a per student basis. I would be very surprised if it was and suggest that Chris Hipkins is comparing two very different figures. The true comparison should be taken with all variables being equalized – establishment costs and all. It is again silly beyond words to dismiss the establishment costs simply because the schools weren’t needed.

This is followed by a suggestion that the partnership school development simply adds “needless capacity”. This might be true if only student numbers are taken into account but is grossly inaccurate if student achievement is taken account of. The partnership school development is aimed at adding to the capacity of our system to bring more success to more students and to turn around some of the disappointing performance of various groups. This is far from “needless” – it is essential.

Finally there emerges in the Herald piece the standard hysteria about public-private partnerships. They have served education well – integrated schools are public-private partnerships and New Zealand has managed these with success for 40 years. And the snide reference to the “clipper of the ticket” is getting into tricky territory.

Who is clipping the ticket in an education system that serves many students well but fails to serve too many others? Who is clipping the ticket when state schools demand money from parents to have their children in a school fully funded by the state? Who is clipping the ticket when the funding made available to a student to be in school fails to result in a positive outcome?


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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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Pathways-ED: The Select Committee Bouquet


St Valentine’s Day – a day of romance, love, the joy of hope, the euphoria of positivity.

Just like yesterday when the Education and Science Select Committee started hearings on the Education Amendment Bill which among other things give the warrant for Charter Schools (now known as Partnership Schools Kura Houora).  As could be predicted the submissions did not require even the hearings for their content to be known.

Except for the Ombudsman who drew attention to what surely was a mistake in the drafting of the Bill – of course any sort of school should be subject to ombudsman scrutiny. Then I wondered – are independent schools subject to ombudsman inquiry? Must find out! Integrated schools? Surely!

The ombudsman’s reported comments simply said that in the education cases she dealt with, it seemed mostly to be about stand-downs and expulsions that schools had “cocked up”  and “cocked up big time”. This, I hope, was an exaggeration which flowed from the moment rather than a calm assessment of the workload.

But calm assessment seemed from the reports to have been something a little light on the ground at this first day of hearings.

I am amazed that education which ought to be identified with reason, with evidence and with scholarly discourse, prefers to present itself as something else.

No survey study of charter schools anywhere has found that they are without exception, a “bad thing”. Generally the evidence is that there are good charter schools, middling charter schools and poor charter schools. It is clear that there are good state schools, middling state schools and poor state schools – we aspire of course to have good state schools. An interesting piece of the charter school evidence is that the proportions of good to middling to poor reflects closely the proportions of good to middling to poor schools in the respective state system.

Would anyone set out to create a middling or a poor Partnership School Kura Houora? Of course not. Therefore blind opposition can only be ideological rather educational in origin.

It surprised me that there was so little reported commentary on the general issue of school success and failure or of disengagement and truancy as key education issues that any new development must address. If a new development does not engage in activity that will deliver higher levels of success and lower levels of disengagement it would be probably not worth doing. This might have formed part of the submissions. If it was, then it has failed to make an impact on the media.

In our peculiarly Anglo-Saxon education system (and in our peer systems of Australia, the UK, the US and parts of Canada) the key issues in education are the levels of success and  failure in the education system, levels of disengagement from it and professional support for teachers working in it.

It is therefore good to see that the Education Amendment Bill ties educational achievement to the responsibilities of the Board of Trustees. The key role of governance bodies such as Boards of schools is to provide returns to the shareholders and increase the value of the operation. In schools this is less about money but very significantly about the success that is brought into the homes of tax payers who support the schools through their investments of time and work.

Issues of health, housing, youth justice, for instance, have their solution in education. Not that schools should attempt to directly address health issues directly other than by playing a proper educative role and perhaps working closely with health providers, nor should they attempt to address hunger which is a role of central government – Finland feeds everyone in schools, the US and UK means test eligibility for lunch while we  struggle to put on a little breakfast in the odd place.

Getting the focus clearly and back on achievement is perhaps the matter in this Education Amendment Bill that has the potential to make the biggest difference.

As for Charter Schools – New Zealand, building on its long experience with charters for all schools, might be able to show others that with focus they can become another way of working. Of course working differently has never been very popular in New Zealand – that is a problem which often hides a solution.

We need lots of educational red roses!


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Talk-ED: The Year of the Snake

2013, the Year of the Snake and a whole lot more besides.

No doubt some of the old issues from 2012 will continue to percolate if not go on the boil. Novopay now has a new Minister looking after it. It was a good move to remove the distraction that this has been from the very critical issues of schooling that we face. Not that the teacher pay issues are not critical but it is essentially a technical issue.

There are a couple of questions that I have wondered about in all this business. Why has the School Trustees Association been so silent and at a distance from all the troubles? After all they are the employers of the teachers and the employment issues created by the whole affair is between teachers and support personnel and their respective boards.

The other question that has yet to be answered is about the quality of data input. There is an old I.T. term, GIGO, that has been the source of many a solution. It stands for Garbage In Garbage Out – in other words, a problem can exist through errors in input. That so many teachers and others are being paid correctly suggests that this is not the source for many but the nature of the gross mis-payments which has seen some teachers paid grotesquely huge amounts might arise through misplacement of decimal points or reversal of variables or something along those lines.

The State sector has a history of failed I.T. projects and one hopes that this is not another one.

The other 2013 issue will inevitably be the Partnership School Kura Houora development. First the Education and Science Select Committee hearings and then the selection of sponsors and then… Meanwhile across the Tasman it all happens almost under the radar. Queensland today launches 26 Independent Public Schools which are to be given greater freedoms in funding and its use and in the appointment of staff.  Mind you, they already have the fire and the floods, if plague and famine appear we will know that they have offended the gods! In New Zealand we have to be content with the offence to the idea taken by the teacher organisations.

I was amused at the image of the teacher (male) sitting with his feet up on the teacher’s desk which appeared in one of the anti-charter school advertisements. I was amused because a couple of years ago, a campaign in favour of charter schools and academies in the United States denigrated the public schools with the image of, you’ve guessed it, a teacher with his feet up on the teacher’s desk. An ordinary idea can only be beaten by a good idea and that can only be beaten by a better idea – so where are the ideas that will see clear and more equitable education outcomes from our education system?

We know that the experience of charter schools in other countries has seen excellent ones, mediocre ones and downright poor ones. Interestingly the proportions of these categories is about the same as the proportion of excellent public schools, mediocre public schools and poor public schools. We have about 2,800 schools in New Zealand, establishing three partnership schools will hardly be a silver bullet nor will it bring the house down. But why would we not believe that we can have three excellent ones?

Finally I note that Teach First NZ, the pressure cooker programme which sees an intensive pre-service teacher education programme precede teaching in the schools with on-going instruction and support, has placed its first crop of recent graduates into schools. It was interesting that one of our university Education Faculties led the charge with this. A similar idea proposed thirty years ago to meet the needs of multicultural schools, a new phenomenon then and largely a mystery to teacher educators, was rejected by all concerned at that time. But good ideas have a habit of resurfacing.

I have had the pleasure of working with several schools in those get-back-to-work PD days that herald the imminent arrival of the challenges. I am continually buoyed by the quality and enthusiasm of these groups. A good way to start the year would be to commit to the goal of high esteem for teachers, schools and education, less of the negativity from the leadership, less of the polemic, lower fear of ideas, brutal honesty about outcomes, a drive back towards simplicity of purpose and fun. That would be both a good start and Finnish.


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Pathways-ED: Charting new directions in the fight against failure


Last night I chaired an evening with visiting US founder of the KIPP[1] Network of Charter Schools – 14 charter schools from Pre-K through to Grade 12. The visit to NZ by Dr Mike Feinberg was sponsored by the University of Auckland, Partnership Schools, The New Zealand Initiative and the Aotearoa Foundation.

A group of a little over 100 heard a presentation full of enthusiasm and much that everyone could relate to. The US faces a situation that is about the same as we do in New Zealand – disengagement, high drop-out rates and middling achievement at tertiary levels. (The Minister released data on Maori and Pacific Island student achievement yesterday and this morning the Principals Federation described the information as unhelpful!)  Fienberg posed the question: Do we accept that this is simply destiny or do we accept that we can do something about it?

That is the question that is being asked constantly here in New Zealand right now. The Minister’s Cross-Sector Forum is focussed on just that issue and on the Better Public Service Goal of 85% of a­ll 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent by 2017).

The audience was asked to accept that we, the professionals had to have the mindset and a belief that such targets were possible – and I for one had no issue with that. In fact I still find it puzzling that this is not easily accepted by some professionals who still cling to all the excuses of factors outside of the school.

Interestingly, Feinberg’s “five pillars” for his charter schools were simple and closely connected to some of the reforms currently being considered in New Zealand:

  •          have students work a longer school day, school week and school year;
  •          have unwavering high expectations;
  •          provide choice for students but along with that demand commitment;
  •          give to students the power to lead;
  •          focus on results.

All this is sound. Much of it underpins the approach of the Tertiary High School which is achieving wonderful levels of success for a wide range of students (e,g. easy completion of NCEA targets well within 2 years, enrolled in a University of Auckland degree in Year 3, on track to MIT degrees and completing MIT diplomas in 3 years to go alongside NCEA completions and so on – good results are clearly possible.)

Feinberg had a lot of other material that was engaging:

  •          emphasise the “J Factor” – joy in learning;
  •          give school leaders the freedom to lead, choice as to resource use;
  •          demand results from leaders;
  •          allow students not simply to survive but also to thrive;
  •          make all schools “choice schools”;
  •          giving choice to students and parents is the “game changer”

So where was the controversy in all this business of charter schools? It was question time that brought out the concerns of some in the audience – use of unregistered teachers (response: Feinberg generally uses registered but also gives students exposure to a wider range of people), attrition rates from KIPP schools (questioner: there is research that says its poor, response: there is research that says it isn’t – duelling with statistic left the audience unclear) and the whole question of choice.

Interestingly, the questioning resulting in several statements from people that action was needed urgently, that Pasifika were sick of waiting for effective education for their children and so on (Disclosure: I also chipped in with this.)

Feinberg used some good quotes from Dr Seuss and it was clear that the classrooms in his Charter Schools were pretty lively places. But then again, so are most classrooms in New Zealand. Clearly, he felt his teachers were excellent, so too are teachers in New Zealand schools. The charter school regulatory environment in the US gives freedoms to schools, well you don’t get a more permissive national framework than we have in New Zealand.

So what are the points at which our system seems to be sticking? Is it focus? is it time spent? Is it the basis of employment of teachers?

I think it might be more in an almost throw-away comment that Feinberg made. Having established middle schools, he saw that he needed to establish elementary schools and secondary schools so that students could have a flow in the schooling that they were getting. Perhaps a key message is that the current organisation of schooling into pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary bits works against student progress.

It was good to have an evening at which ideas about education were tossed around – it doesn’t happen very often these days and it really isn’t scary.

Oh, and Dr Seuss.  What about this?

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

And will you succeed?
Yes!  You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!

(Oh the Places You’ll Go)


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