Charter Schools Come Closer to Home

Charter schools are about to be launched in New Zealand. Last month, the New Zealand Government announced the establishment of a working group to advise on a charter school model for NZ.

This follows an agreement between the National Party and the free market ACT Party last December to set up three charter school pilots. The agreement was part of the ACT Party’s support agreement with the National-led government.

Charter schools are independent schools funded by government. Under the agreement, a variety of organisations, including charities, churches, businesses or other schools, will be able to set up charter schools or take over existing ones. They may operate the school themselves or contract out management to not-for-profit or for-profit education providers.

They will get the same government funding as state schools and not allowed to charge fees. However, they will be free to raise their own revenues (including from private individuals, churches and corporate and other philanthropic or community programmes). In the United States, charter schools raise millions of dollars from business philanthropic organisations.

The charter schools will have much more freedom in curriculum, staffing arrangements and operations. They will be able to determine their own teaching practices and curriculum, pay teachers according to performance and to set longer school days, weekend lessons and different school terms. They may also be allowed to hire some unqualified teachers.

Schools will be required to accept all students who apply for entrance (until they have reached capacity), irrespective of academic ability, although they may set geographical boundaries as long as these do not deny opportunities to disadvantaged students. Where demand exceeds supply schools may choose to conduct entrance on a ballot basis.

The agreement also says charter groups will “compete to operate a local school or start up a new one”, suggesting that if a local state school is deemed to have failed its management contract will be opened up to tender.

The proposed charter schools are targeted at lifting educational achievement in disadvantaged communities. It is intended that the pilot charters will be set up as secondary schools in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland.

The working group will be led by Wellington businesswoman Catherine Isaac. She is a communications consultant with the NZ Business Roundtable which has long advocated a market-based education system. She is also a past president of the ACT Party and stood as a candidate in the 2011 elections. A columnist in The Press says that she “has long been a behind-the-scenes player in far-right, free-market politics”.

Isaac told The Press that charter schools will provide competition for state schools. She says that if a school is not meeting the needs of children or parents it shouldn’t continue: “the opportunity is there for the state school to lift its game and if it can’t, perhaps it should be taken over or closed”.

A key role is also being played by Education Ministry chief executive Lesley Longstone who was instrumental in setting up the similar “free schools” model being introduced in England by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

The confidence and supply agreement between the Nationals and the ACT Party says that the New Zealand approach will be “modelled on successful international examples, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools in the United States”, and to lesser extent, the “free schools” being rolled out in England.

British free schools are based on a Swedish model pioneered in the 1990s. They have not proved successful. A study published by a prominent business think tank in Sweden last year found that free schools had increased social segregation and may not have improved educational standards at all. An academic study published by the Institute of Education at the University of London in 2010 found that Swedish free schools had failed to improve achievement by children from poorly educated families and immigrants and that the greatest beneficiaries were students from highly educated families.

Per Thulberg, Director-General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, told the BBC in 2010 that free schools have “not led to better results”. He said that where these schools had improved their results, it was because their students came from more highly education families than those who attended the schools that free schools had replaced.

KIPP schools have generally proved more successful than other charter and public schools in the US. However, this is likely due to their higher resource levels, much more time spent in school, lower enrolments of some lower achieving groups of students and high attrition rates by low achieving students.

On average, KIPP schools receive about one-third more funding than local traditional public schools. A 2011 study published by the US National Centre of the Study of Privatization in Education found that KIPP schools receive more in both public and private funding than traditional public schools. They receive millions in funding from private philanthropic organisations.

KIPP schools provide massive amounts of additional time in school, operating a much longer school day and school year than traditional public schools. Typically, the school day lasts from 7:30am until 5:00pm weekdays and includes mandatory Saturday school every alternate week. They receive substantial additional funding from private sources, especially from large philanthropic organisations.

Studies show that KIPP schools also enrol fewer Hispanic students, students with disabilities and English language learners than other public schools, which contributes to higher results. However, they do enrol more Black students than other schools. There is also evidence that more students leave KIPP schools than traditional public schools and that they are concentrated among low achieving students. The departure of low-performing students helps KIPP improve its aggregate results. KIPP schools also have higher teacher turnover rates.

KIPP schools require parents and students to sign contracts agreeing to fulfil academic and behavioural expectations and maintain unusually strict disciplinary standards. Violations can lead to suspension or expulsion.

The US study of KIPP schools concluded that they have much to prove as a realistic model for education improvement:

If KIPP wishes to maintain its status as an exemplar of private management of public schools, rather than a new effort to privatize public schools, it will need to convince policymakers and the public that it intends to recruit and serve a wider range of students and that it will be able to do so with sustainable levels of funding comparable to what other traditional public schools receive….
Before KIPP can be considered a model to be widely replicated, it…. needs to recruit and serve a reasonable share of students who are more costly to educate, especially students with disabilities and students who are not native English speakers. The limited range of students that KIPP serves, its inability to serve all students who enter, and its dependence on local traditional public schools to receive and serve the droves of students who leave, all speak loudly to the limitations of this model. [p.iv]

This will be the test for the new charter schools in New Zealand.

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