The former ACT party president leading the charge for charter schools, Catherine Isaac, says everyone will win under the new system. The critics violently disagree. Anthony Hubbard reports.
Catherine Isaac says she doesn't want to bring politics into the argument about charter schools. The former president of the ACT party does not have a "hard-out political agenda".
She is just trying to help the poor.
Charter schools will give "students from disadvantaged areas the kind of choice that students from middle-class and wealthy families currently have.
"It's a much fairer deal for kids from low-income backgrounds."
Charter schools are ACT party policy and are part of its coalition deal with National.
Education Minister Hekia Parata selected Ms Isaac to head the group that will recommend charter schools and will also monitor them.
The world assumes she was chosen as a safe pair of ACT party hands (five years as president, and second on the party list in the 2011 election).
"It's not for me to speculate on that," she tells The Dominion Post.
"I didn't make the decision. I didn't put myself forward. I was invited to do it."
Charter schools have caused violent debate wherever they have been tried, and the same thing has happened in New Zealand. ACT's role has only added to the heat.
Ms Isaac was heckled and jeered at a public meeting on the issue. Critics say charter schools are the thin end of the wedge, a halfway house to privatisation, an ACT plot against the state education system.
Even Waipareira Trust boss and former Labour MP John Tamihere, a supporter of charter schools, finds a problem with the ACT connection.
"I will never go near any product being endorsed or pushed by [ACT leader and MP] John Banks," says Mr Tamihere.
Ms Isaac, though, is a public relations professional - she runs the Awaroa consultancy in Wellington - and doesn't lose her cool under fire.
She says New Zealand can pick the best from overseas charter schools. Massey University education professor John O'Neill says the signs are that we are picking the worst.
FREEDOM AND LICENCE
Ms Isaac claims that New Zealand can avoid the pitfalls other countries have faced. She agrees with the critics that not all charter schools have worked well. There is no such thing as a generic charter school, she says.
"People who don't for whatever reason like the idea cast around and find examples that don't work. There are problems and there are plenty of those. There is no denying that."
Nobody knows what charter schools will be like in New Zealand, because none have been set up yet. Ms Isaac's committee has so far had 34 informal expressions of interest.
None of them have come from for-profit groups, she says, "but that's not to say some won't come in". There are "quite a few" proposals from religious groups.
Overall, "they are very much from the communities which at the moment are suffering most from underachievement", she says.
"They are community groups who want their children to do better."
Prof O'Neill points to fierce rows in Britain over government attempts to "force" local schools to become charter schools.
Ms Isaac says charter schools will have to show they have consulted their community and that the community wants such a school.
Fears that religious charter schools will be able to teach creationism instead of evolution are misplaced, Ms Isaac suggests.
Any "wacky" proposal "is not going to get over the line".
In New Zealand, every charter school has to target the disadvantaged - the poor, Maori, Pasifika and special needs pupils.
"The British [charter] schools didn't set out to target the disadvantaged students," she says.
"That might have been their broad goal but they didn't specify that. And they are open to all comers."
Ms Isaac says such schools here will not be able to cherry-pick their pupils - a common criticism overseas. Nor will they be able to smuggle in less disadvantaged kids over time.
DEVILS AND DETAILS
So much for the theory. How will the system work in practice?
One of the complaints about overseas schools is that they serve the interests more of the aspiring poor than the most disadvantaged.
They use various devices to screen their intake in favour of the better-organised poor, whose children will tend to get better grades and enhance the school's reputation.
Prof O'Neill cites an American case where families wanting to enrol in a school have to apply for a ballot several months in advance. Well-organised families have an advantage. Some British schools make their enrolment material forbiddingly difficult to understand.
To counter this kind of thing, Prof O'Neill suggests, all the local kids should be automatically enrolled in the charter school, "and they opt out rather than opt in".
Ms Isaac says: "They do need to be a school of choice."
Isn't the choice enshrined in the ability to opt out?
"Well, we will see . . . I have the benefit of course of being aware of the types of proposals that are coming through, and I don't see those problems arising."
The New Zealand schools will have to show they are retaining their kids rather than expelling the slow or difficult ones or allowing many to drop out. "Student retention is a key indicator" that will be measured by the committee, she says.
One of the complaints about the Kipp (Knowledge is Power Programme) charter schools in the United States, a favourite among champions of the concept, is that there is a huge dropout rate.
Kipp claims great success in getting its graduates into university. But this ignores the crowds who dropped out in the lower grades.
"If half of the kids are dropping out and you get 100 per cent of who's left over the line, then that's not going to be good enough," Ms Isaac says.
"Cream-skimming" of better pupils was a common accusation of charter schools, she says, and "we are absolutely committed to ensuring that doesn't happen".
Charter schools will be held to account far more rigorously than other schools, Ms Isaac says.
"The information will be publicly available and the information will be very specific and detailed and set against clear targets."
The school reports will go the Ministry of Education, and will be available under the Official Information Act. Apart from these reports, however, the schools themselves will not be subject to the OIA. "They are private institutions," she says.
Shouldn't the schools be subject to the act, since they are educating our kids - and using taxpayers' money? No, says Ms Isaac. There are many government-funded agencies in education which don't come under the OIA.
The schools are free to set their own salaries and can hire unregistered teachers. Ms Isaac cites the case of a vet hired to teach animal husbandry. The school would not be allowed to hire "just any old vet", however.
"They are going to have to put forward a vet who has good teaching skills, who is able to engage with students, and make a case for that."
Critics say there is scope under the present system to allow temporary use of outstanding but unregistered or untrained teachers. The Teachers' Council can issue a limited authority to teach.
Ms Isaac says the limited authority is time-bound "and there is a limit to what you can pay them. It's a mechanism for bringing in temporary people".
"It's not actually a way of recruiting a teacher who may be key to the curriculum you are offering."
She finds a similarity with the kohanga reo movement, where kaumatua fluent in Maori but lacking technical qualifications played a crucial part in the movement.
Behind all this is a profound difference of outlook between the champions and the critics of Tomorrow's Schools.
The critics see problems, the defenders see opportunities. The critics are suspicious both of the motives and the practices of the schools.
Ms Isaac sees only well- meaning people who want to help the downtrodden, don't want to cook their results, manipulate their intake or cut corners.
"If you were trying to set up a school and you wanted it to be brilliant and you wanted it to succeed," she asks, "why would you possibly want to bring in incompetent teachers?"
COMPETITION AND CHOICE
There is a yet deeper disagreement between the sides, and that is about competition.
The critics say it has led to white and brown flight and left those at the bottom worse off. The aspiring working class leave, and the sink schools get worse and worse.
Ms Isaac doesn't buy this. Competition can make everyone lift their game, she says.
"Rather than just fizzle out, schools that have lost students fight back.
"There are good examples with the [American] Kipp schools. The schools have had a look at what Kipp schools are doing and think, 'Well, OK, that is actually working - we're going to do that too'.
"That is a great result."
Charter schools give choice to those who are too poor to bus their kids to another school, she says.
The Authorisation Board, she says, will not monitor the effect of the charter schools on the schools around them.
"It would be near impossible to monitor that effect in a system where choice, competition and movement among schools is already endemic," she says.
John Tamihere supports charter schools in principle. "I support anything that changes the status quo," because the status quo delivers such bad results for Maori. If his own Maori Urban authority, the Waipareira Trust, set up a charter school it would help lift Maori achievement.
However, such a school would only be one fish in a large pond. Partly for this reason, he says, his trust has decided not to apply to run such a school. Only a few charter schools would be set up, he believes, and not all of them would be the right sort.
He would prefer an alternative model such as Finland's, where more resources are poured into all state schools and where teachers have to be highly educated and trained. Then all state schools would be good ones and there would be no need for charter schools.
However, he concedes, "that's not going to happen".
Similarly, Prof O'Neill says the present system is extremely flexible and allows new and innovative schools and programmes to be set up. Charter schools are not needed to improve the performance of disadvantaged groups.
Ms Isaac rejects claims by critics that the charter schools experiment is a way of pushing ACT's far-Right agenda. She scorns the idea that the schools pave the way for privatisation of state schools.
Her own five years as president of ACT "is not the only thing I've done in my life".
"I've had a successful career in business. I've spent a huge amount of time in public policy. I have had a longstanding interest in education policy in particular.
"I've made a real study of this topic so I'm familiar with the literature. I served for nine years on school boards. I'm a parent.
"I think I have a number of qualifications and I have obviously a great desire to see this succeed."
Labour's announcement that it would not continue the experiment if it got back into power, however, has raised a serious question about the future of charter schools.
Ms Isaac says those applying to set up a charter school would have to factor in the risk of a new government putting an end to them. But she says she hopes that a new government "would first have a look at the schools to see how they are doing".
Labour's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, says individual charter schools would be dealt with case by case.
If a school was doing a good job, "we might bring it into the public school system".
But "what I am saying is there's no future for the charter schools model".
- Charter schools are funded by taxpayers but operated by private sponsors such as businesses, community groups or not-for-profit organisations.
- The schools have more flexibility on how they are run. This includes the curriculum, how they are led and pupils' hours. They are designed to be "open to all students who apply, regardless of background or ability" and have no tuition fees.
- The schools are accountable to the Government for "raising achievement".
- Charter schools have come to New Zealand as a result of the coalition agreement between the ACT party and National.
- The schools operate in Sweden, Britain and the United States. There is fierce debate about their effectiveness. In New Zealand, according to the ACT-National agreement, charter schools would be set up in areas where educational underachievement is most entrenched.
- The woman in charge of the charter schools project in New Zealand, Catherine Isaac, says it is still not known how many schools would be set up.
- The official name for charter schools in this country is partnership schools/kura hourua.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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