Is competition in education the answer?
You could say it was a lousy Christmas for charter school supporters.
On December 21, after months of delays, official advice on the Government's controversial charter schools policy was finally made public. The advice from Treasury and the Ministry of Education undermined much of the rhetoric and promises made by backers of charter schools.
The rhetoric is that competition in education improves outcomes for everyone. But from the 56 pages of Treasury documents, a picture emerges of an education experiment that looks risky and even counter-productive. Treasury says evidence shows that "schooling systems that use strongly competitive elements do not produce systematically better [student] outcomes".
Some charter schools are more effective than others, Treasury found. The best are in urban areas, are largely classroom-based and not too "alternative". But downsides of the good ones include a negative impact on nearby state schools rather than the promised "positive competition impact".
Nor is it clear that overseas models are transferable. There is "not a wealth of studies which look at which charter schools raise achievement and why" and New Zealand's education system is already one of the most decentralised. This means that "the difference between state schools and charter schools will not be as pronounced as in other school systems", such as the United States, where charter schools started.
Treasury is also "doubtful" that charter schools will rapidly improve NCEA results as promised. And then there is the dollars and cents stuff: "It is still unclear whether the potential costs and risks of introducing the charter school model outweigh the potential benefit of trialling these new approaches via charter schools".
Treasury asked: Why not trial new approaches in the existing state system?
There is also the religious issue. Like state-integrated schools, such as Catholic schools, charter schools can provide religious rather than secular education. Treasury expects that "some in the education sector may see this as a challenge to the principles of 'free, secular and compulsory' state schools as a cornerstone of the Education Act", which gives students "a right to secular education".
Finally, there is a point so important that Treasury put it in bold type. While Associate Education Minister and ACT MP John Banks says not all charter school teachers need to be registered, Treasury urges the Government to take the Ministry of Education's advice and insist on registered teachers: "Quality teaching is the most important in- school factor influencing student achievement" and "teacher registration is a reasonable proxy for a minimum level of quality".
Again, these recommendations were not from a teachers' union or academic think-tank but from Treasury, which is usually a reliable supporter of free-market activity. But here they argue against competition, not for it.
"What we found interesting is how much Treasury agreed with us," says New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) researcher Stephanie Mills.
She says the NZEI, a teachers' union, made the Official Information Act request that eventually got the Treasury report released. It was put off again and again until the Ombudsman got involved. But large parts of the report remain blacked out and the NZEI is pushing for those omissions to be addressed, particularly as the report goes broader than just charter schools, into "privatisation in schooling" generally. What else is being considered behind closed doors, they wonder.
Catherine Isaac tries to give an impression of not being too bothered about what Treasury says.
"It's not for me to comment on Treasury's advice," Isaac says. "All I can say is that we have focused very closely on overseas evidence and the more freedom that you allow, the better."
But that seems to directly contradict with Treasury's finding that competitive elements don't produce better outcomes. "There are different schools of thought on that," Isaac says.
Last year, Isaac, a former president of the ACT party, was appointed chairwoman of the Partnership Schools Working Group after John Banks made charter schools part of a coalition deal with National. For New Zealand, charter schools have been renamed partnership schools. In Britain and Sweden they are known as "free" schools.
Most continue to call them charter schools in New Zealand although Isaac occasionally corrects the mistake.
Some critics worry that charter schools will take public money but be free from scrutiny. The Official Information Act will not apply and there will be no requirement to have parents on school boards. Some call it "privatisation by stealth", as the state contracts a "sponsor", which could be a business, to run the school.
The delayed release of the Treasury report set the scene for a busy month. From mid-December until yesterday, Isaac received indications of interest from groups wanting to set up charter schools. The first will be expected to open their doors in 2014.
Yes, that is a tight timeframe, Isaac agrees. It gets tighter still. Applications are not due until April, to be assessed by a Partnership School Authorisation Board that is yet to be appointed. In May, that board will advise the Minister of Education.
The minister announces the successful applicants at the end of May and those who miss out will get to apply again for 2015.
How many indications of interest have come in?
"Quite a few" is the clearest answer Isaac can give.
Will there still be one school in Auckland and one in Christchurch?
"There are some from Auckland," she replies. "I'm not sure that there are any from Christchurch. I'm not sure why Christchurch is so worried."
It is because the coalition agreement stated that disadvantaged areas in Auckland and Christchurch were likely locations.
"But [Christchurch] is looking quite unlikely," Isaac says. "Christchurch was named simply because of the earthquakes. The city was already at a disadvantage with the massive disruption to the education system.
"You have to remember, this is simply an option. If people see a need and have an interest in putting forward a proposal, and have the support of the community, they come forward. It's not going to be imposed. There have been attempts to indicate that some external power is somehow going to plant schools in communities that don't want them."
As for the spectre of for-profit groups running charter schools, she says: "As it happens, I'm not aware of any for-profits expressing interest. They are all either community groups or iwi or existing schools."
Other key details are still up in the air. Since the policy appeared in late 2011, most have assumed that two charter schools will open in 2014. There may be more.
"There never has been" a plan to open just two, Isaac says. "That's another misunderstanding."
There is no maximum number as "it's going to be a matter of quality".
What can Isaac say about the types of charter schools we will get? Will we see religious groups seeking full state funding?
"Again, you can't generalise. There are some faith-based groups coming forward."
But she dismisses claims that the state will fund creationist teaching as a "fear tactic" from the unions.
"Again, it's most unlikely. The truth is that some faith-based schools, especially Catholic schools, do exceedingly well for disadvantaged students. And there is a demand for that kind of education.
"No student will have to go to any of these schools and no teacher will have to teach in them.
"I know that the Swedish model is regarded as very successful and they have most of the freedoms that we are including in our model, including the possibility of for-profits. The for-profit schools in Sweden have done extremely well with disadvantaged children."
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Isaac mentions Sweden often. The Swedish free schools, established in the early 1990s, are seen as a more attractive proposition than the United States model. In the US, the most quoted statistics, from a Stanford University study, say only 17 per cent of charter schools perform better than public schools, 37 per cent perform worse and 46 per cent perform no differently.
But is Sweden doing much better? Last month, Swedish newspaper The Local reported research by Jonas Vlachos, an associate professor of economics at Stockholm University. His 2011 research found that Sweden's "lower-secondary" free schools perform slightly better than state schools but inflate test scores more. At "upper-secondary" level, quality problems become "more severe" and there is "increased socio-economic sorting as a consequence of increased choice".
In other words, competition has made society less homogenous.
Providers without education experience have caused problems, Vlachos found. And secrecy has surrounded the profitability of the companies running schools.
His lesson was that market forces do not function well when it comes to education, and low quality providers are both costly and hard to remove.
But the prologue to creating charter schools in New Zealand is also something of an information war.
Isaac emails two documents that tell a different story. A report from a Swedish Ministry of Employment research institute says that competition has been effective although it took at least a decade for positive results to appear.
The second document is a blog by the editor of British conservative magazine The Spectator, translating Swedish findings for his readership. He is hugely in favour of the for-profit model, which the UK is yet to approve.
In the UK. "free" schools are a policy of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Reports go back and forth, and opponents hurl statistics at each other. The charter school model is loose enough to include both successes and failures.
Still, while Isaac talks about Sweden, it is clear her working group also takes guidance from the less well-regarded US system. Minutes of working group meetings show that it met with two key players from the US last year. The first was Mike Feinberg, co- founder of the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), which has 125 schools in 20 states. His visit was funded by US hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, who is also a major donor to KIPP.
Feinberg likes to tell a story from KIPP's early days in which he visited a student's home and confiscated her television set to make her study.
Meeting Feinberg was "very helpful", Isaac says.
The second meeting was with William Haft, from the National Association of Charter School Authorisers (Nasca), who spoke about the contractual side. Given the Ministry of Education's ongoing Novopay debacle, no-one can be too careful.
"You have to make sure the people running the schools are competent and capable, particularly in terms of financial management," Isaac agrees.
The working group had another expert closer to home. The minutes of its first meeting, in April 2012, show that former education secretary Lesley Longstone provided "major input". In interviews, Longstone claimed that she was not lured from the UK to help with charter schools but Isaac says "certainly she did bring expertise on this topic and was supportive of it".
Charter school opponents countered with experts of their own. New Orleans education activist Karran Harper Royal addressed the Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) conference and warned of "disaster capitalism".
She said in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the definition of a failing school was changed to allow schools to be taken out of the hands of local boards.
"Billionaire philanthropists" reinvented them as charters.
She warned that "they are buying their way into schools to suck the profits out of public education".
Veteran teachers were dumped in favour of newer, cheaper ones, parents were removed from boards and children who are harder to teach were barred.
"Children who cost more to educate don't give you a good return on your investment," she said.
While Isaac was taking indications of interest from possible charter school providers, submissions were flooding in about the law that will allow them, which is the Education Amendment Bill 2012. More than 1800 submissions came in through the NZEI website alone.
The PPTA put its submission online. It noted that it speaks for 95 per cent of registered teachers. It argued that charter schools are "a vote of no confidence in the capacity of parents to be actively involved in their local school in a governance role".
Instead, parents are "reduced to the role of 'customers' in the educational marketplace and their children become commodities from whom the charter school sponsors may seek to profit".
The PPTA argued that charter schools will experiment on children in poor communities, quoting Catherine Isaac's comment that charter schools will be "the R & D arm of the education system".
Isaac says she did make the comment but disagrees that it means charter schools are "experimental".
The PPTA also traced the policy's origins in ACT history. While most were surprised to hear about charter schools after the 2011 election, the PPTA called attention to a 2009 working group on "parental choice" in education, chaired by former ACT MP Heather Roy and containing former ACT MP Sir Roger Douglas and future education minister Hekia Parata.
But Roy and Douglas found this group too moderate and produced a minority report that pushed the line of choice and freedom even further.
From this, the PPTA concluded that charter schools are just the start of ACT's controversial "vouchers" policy, in which parents are education consumers shopping for schools.
PPTA president Robin Duff notes that the electoral fortunes of ACT will rise or fall on charter schools, adding that "they haven't much further to fall".
At times, the PPTA submission also displays a wry sense of humour, such as when it notes that "the ministerial sponsor of this bill, John Banks, rejects not only evolution but also the scientific understandings about geological time and presumably all the physical laws about the origin of the universe". That gives "implicit endorsement to the prospect that public money may be given to some charter school operators who believe that a framework of medieval beliefs is sufficient to prepare New Zealand children to take their place in the 21st century".
The PPTA also ran a high- profile advertising campaign urging people to make submissions. Isaac calls it "a fairly sleazy, hysterical, highly personalised" campaign in which she was targeted.
"I just wonder how teachers feel about their professional body spending what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money on a campaign attacking an initiative which is trying to help students succeed." she says.
They feel "delighted," the PPTA's Robin Duff says. Support for the PPTA position was overwhelming at the last conference, he adds.
But what do parents make of it all? They are the "consumers" in this new model. Mills quotes a UMR poll that found that 86 per cent of parents were strongly against unqualified teachers.
Isaac says applicants will have to demonstrate parental demand for their schools, but is demand out there?
'There is not a flood of supporters or parents or anybody going, 'Yeah, yeah, we want a charter school'," Mills believes. "If you look at the list of people who have expressed interest, they are sectarian, basically. You've got fundamentalist Christian schools that are private at the moment and you've got the Maharishi Foundation and a couple of outdoor pursuit places. It's not a sterling group."
Mills and Duff expect to see some religious schools propped up by the taxpayer, with unregistered teachers promoting whatever world view they like.
"There is obviously an argument for parental choice in terms of belief systems but there is also an argument that every child deserves the opportunity to understand how the world works," Mills says.