Charter schools exemption 'unconstitutional'

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 09:38 14/02/2013

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The Office of the Ombudsman is concerned with the "unconstitutional nature" of making charter schools exempt from public scrutiny.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem's plea was made during the first public submissions into the Education Amendment Bill in Parliament yesterday.

The bill seeks to introduce charter schools, clarify the role of boards of trustees, and amend provisions around issues such as a school's power to search and seize drugs.

Charter schools, also known as partnership schools, were the hot topic of debate when a list of individuals and organisations within the education sector addressed the education and science select committee.

Dame Beverley warned that proposals to make charter schools exempt from the Official Information Act and Ombudsman Act would detract from public confidence, and remove the fundamental right for an independent review mechanism.

The way the bill stood, there was no mechanism to make schools compliant with fair expulsion and exclusion. "We deal with a number of complaints and often find when it is cocked up, it's cocked up really badly."

Private prisons under the Corrections Act 2004 were similar to charter schools in their operational makeup, but they were subject to various statutory constraints and open to scrutiny by the ombudsman.

"I can see no substantive difference between private prisons and partnership schools that justifies their different constitutional treatment."

New Zealand Principals' Federation president Philip Harding said state-funded charter schools would not save taxpayers money, and would have the "potential to harm children's learning and their futures".

"There is no public mandate to pursue this policy."

On behalf of all New Zealand principals, he asked that charter schools be removed from the bill, and resources be used to improve what already existed.

"It probably is time to have a conversation about how we can improve, develop and strengthen the Tomorrow's Schools model."

New NZEI president Judith Nowotarski told the committee New Zealanders did not ask for charter schools. "Voters did not know about charter schools, nor did they vote from them in the last election."

Groups interested in establishing charter schools included the Maharishi Foundation, a group of existing fundamentalist Christian private schools and centres, and an outdoor adventure provider, she said.

"These may be well-intentioned groups but there is no evidence they provide culturally appropriate or more innovative or better teaching and learning for the Government's priority groups."

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The only obvious submission in support of charter schools at yesterday's hearing was from the Sabbath Rest Advert Church, whose trustee Jillian Friar said they would allow for a "richer diversity", and give the opportunity for more faith-based schools.

More public submissions will be made to the committee next week.

- The Dominion Post

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