The announcement that National will trial charter schools in low-income areas as part of its coalition agreement with ACT suggests that John Key’s government will be a lot more adventurous in its second term than in its first.
It’s an extremely significant policy gain for ACT and runs counter to the suspicion expressed by many commentators (me included) that John Banks is a political impostor; a National MP in disguise. Charter schools and parental choice in education have been core ACT policy from the start but until now, have never looked like gaining mainstream traction.
It rather looks as if National is using its tiny ally in Parliament to advance policies that it knows will resonate with National supporters – and no doubt with many of its MPs too – but which it hasn’t had the nerve to embrace itself. Radio New Zealand political editor Brent Edwards also pointed out this morning that it’s in National’s interests to help ACT rebuild so that it continues to have a dependable partner on its right. Allowing ACT a few important policy gains – and several ministerial positions – would be consistent with that strategy.
That John Key went on Morning Report this morning to defend the coalition deal with ACT – and took a pot shot at the “vested interests” of the teacher unions that oppose charter schools – is another indication that National has experienced a testosterone surge as a result of its election triumph. In the past Key has only rarely been interviewed on Radio New Zealand, leading to accusations that he wasn’t up to aggressive questioning.
We should all now brace ourselves for a furious co-ordinated offensive from the teacher unions, which have been remarkably successful in bullying governments in the past and will see the introduction of charter schools - even if only on a very limited scale - as a threat to their iron grip on the education system. To the teacher unions, parental choice is a seriously subversive concept. Inevitably, they will seek to forcefully remind the government just who the system exists for: the teachers.
The big question then will be whether the government stands up to the unions or shamefully capitulates, as National did over bulk funding in the 1990s. To its credit, the Key government stood its ground over national standards in the face of an almost hysterical outcry - the first setback for the teacher unions for as long as most people can remember. I hope it demonstrates the same resolve over charter schools.
It is, after all, just a trial, although we can rely on the NZEI, the PPTA and the school principals' organisations to portray it as tantamount to the sacking of our schools by Barbarian hordes.