Char­ters risky

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION / NEWS -

Ed­u­ca­tion is a mine­field for any gov­ern­ment.

This year, the Key gov­ern­ment learned the hard way to avoid pro­mot­ing poli­cies that vot­ers feel will di­rectly af­fect their chil­dren. It backed down from in­creas­ing class sizes, which was a fool­hardy idea that Trea­sury had some­how man­aged to sell to Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Hekia Parata.

On the other hand, the Gov­ern­ment is gam­bling that it can get away with an­tag­o­nis­ing teach­ers, prin­ci­pals and school boards, so long as it keeps the par­ents on side.

How­ever short­sight­edly, the pub­lic seems to have treated na­tional stan­dards, for ex­am­ple, as some­thing that mainly af­fects teach­ers, not chil­dren. Sim­i­larly, the pi­lot pro­gramme on char­ter schools has so far failed to gen­er­ate much heat among the gen­eral pub­lic – per­haps be­cause vot­ers are treat­ing it as some­thing more likely to af­fect other peo­ples’ chil­dren, and not their own.

But the first stir­rings of pub­lic con­cern were sparked by last week’s head­lines that un­qual­i­fied teach­ers would be al­lowed to teach at char­ter schools. The con­tra­dic­tion that trades­men need to be trained and reg­is­tered while peo­ple who teach chil­dren in tax­payer-funded char­ter schools will re­quire no train­ing at all, has be­gun to res­onate – if one can take on­line polls and com­ments as in­dica­tive of the pub­lic mood. (Tellingly, the best pri­vate schools do not hire un­trained teach­ers.)

It is not sur­pris­ing the pub­lic has taken a while to get to grips with this is­sue. Last year, the char­ter schools idea sud­denly emerged from the post-elec­tion deal that the gov­ern­ment struck with the Act Party. It has never re­ceived a man­date from vot­ers, who were never told dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign that it was a se­ri­ous prospect.

The first char­ter schools will open in 2014. They will be based on United States mod­els that of­fer more flex­i­bil­ity in gov­er­nance, cur­ric­ula, work­ing hours, and pay rates than or­di­nary state schools.

To crit­ics, they are an ide­o­log­i­cal so­lu­tion to a largely non-ex­is­tent prob­lem, given that since the in­tro­duc­tion of To­mor­row’s Schools in 1988, New Zealand al­ready has the most de-cen­tralised form of school gov­er­nance in the de­vel­oped world.

Al­though not per­fect, our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem also rates highly in per­for­mance, at fifth in the en­tire OECD. Ar­guably, the resid­ual prob­lems in our school sys­tem could be bet­ter treated by pump­ing the funds cur­rently be­ing ear­marked for the char­ter schools ex­per­i­ment, into state school­ing.

Judg­ing by US ev­i­dence, only those at the very top and the very bot­tom of the so­cial lad­der tend to ben­e­fit from char­ter schools.

The wealthy can af­ford to equip their char­ter schools and cherry pick the students (they tend to ex­clude spe­cial needs and ‘‘prob­lem’’ chil­dren) in a way that al­most guar­an­tees they will per­form bet­ter. Sim­i­larly, the poor get to form their own po­lit­i­cally or re­li­giously de­fined char­ter schools – and not sur­pris­ingly, Destiny Church has al­ready de­clared an in­ter­est in ac­cess­ing the char­ter schools’ pool of funds.

In the name of com­pen­sat­ing for so­cial in­equal­ity, char­ter schools ap­pear just as likely to ac­cen­tu­ate it. The po­lit­i­cal risk for the gov­ern­ment lies in how quickly the pub­lic come to judge the cur­rent ex­per­i­ment.

Box­ing clever: Cam­borne artist Stephanie Drew has played with the idea of ‘‘inside ver­sus out­side’’ for her en­try in this year’s Box Art ex­hi­bi­tion, which will raise money to­wards a Pataka artist in res­i­dence.

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