New Zealand adopted charter school idea
Charter schools won’t change schooling
Thw formation of a new Government under MMP is a time of horse trading and when the small parties have their best opportunity to influence Government policies. Often, this can feel like the “tail wagging the dog”, but the strength of National’s electoral position means it can be more selective about the policies it adopts from its minor partners.
Irrespective of the underlying motive, the proposal announced in National’s supply and confidence agreement with ACT to introduce charter schools should be considered a positive development for the education system.
Charter schools are a relatively recent American innovation, with the first school opening in 1992. Today, there are more than 5000 charter schools in the United States. Yet it remains a minority form of schooling, teaching fewer than 2 per cent of US students.
This minority aspect may explain why the proposal is to focus on South Auckland and Christchurch; one needs a reasonable population base to justify the creation of any new schools. New Zealand’s population base may yet prove too small and widely distributed to support charter schools.
But charter schools potentially offer an alternative for students or segments of society whose needs are not well catered for by the public school system.
In general, the New Zealand public school system performs very well. New Zealand students do well in international studies, not only relative to the performance of top and average students, but also in terms of the ability demonstrated by low achievers. Yet any national system will not meet the needs of everyone.
For many, particularly the more wealthy, the private school system provides viable alternatives to the public system.
Indeed, school enrolment data suggest an increasing proportion of New Zealanders prefer to send their children to private schools, despite the presence of a strongly performing public school system.
Charter schools potentially offer an extension of choice for families that do not have enough money to send their children to private schools. US evidence is that charter schools tend to locate in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and serve students who are substantially poorer than the average public school student.
So how do they work in the US? Like regular schools, they are supported by public funds and do not charge for tuition. Unlike public schools, they receive fees per student, but usually at a rate less generous than that provided for public schools.
Charter schools in the US cannot choose students based on admission tests or similar criteria. Students wishing to go to an oversubscribed charter school are chosen by lottery.
Although there is debate about the academic performance of charter schools, the fact that 65 per cent of charter schools in the US were oversubscribed in 2010 (up from 59 per cent in 2008) indicates they are meeting a need that is not being met by the public system.
The Annual Survey of America’s Charter Schools in 2010 showed an average of 239 children are waiting to enter each charter school in the US. With an average charter school size of 372 students, it is estimated that the number of students on waiting lists would fill another 5000 charter schools.
Charter schools have achieved their popularity, not through big budgets, as they typically receive lower levels of public funding than the public school system, but by offering programmes, services and teaching formulas that parents want but cannot find in traditional public schools.
Charter schools generate a lot of controversy. One point of contention revolves around the exemption from regulation about teacher certification.
Debate about charter schools quickly polarises into a turf war that is perhaps more about the merits of unionisation than it is about the merits of charter schools to children and their families. Yet the language of the debate centres on whether students perform better or worse in the different systems.
Ascertaining the relative performance of the different systems is a complex task, and people are able to find evidence to support their prior beliefs. Ultimately, my view on the value of charter schools is coloured by the obvious popularity of the schools for many American families. In the US there is a wide variety of charter schools, and hence a wide range of aims and abilities.
Their introduction here will bring failures as well as successes, but they will provide a positive alternative for many children. The US experience should also temper expectations; charter schools are unlikely to herald a revolution in the public school system. It is a small step towards increasing education choice, which should be welcomed but should not be expected to create major changes to the mainstream system.
Dave Grimmond is a senior economist at Infometrics.
- The Dominion Post