Saturday, June 1, 2013

Charter schools: a good idea, badly handled

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 31.)
BY THE TIME you read this, Parliament may have passed the legislation introducing charter schools.
It’s a worthwhile experiment that almost didn’t deserve to succeed. Like the poorly executed state asset privatisation policy, the charter schools proposal aroused avoidable suspicion and antagonism by the clumsy way it was handled.

Charter schools went unmentioned in the 2011 election campaign. The proposal emerged into the light only later, as part of ACT’s coalition agreement with National. Yet we can assume there were discussions between the two parties long before that.
If a policy is worth adopting, its backers should have the confidence to toss it into the public arena and be prepared to explain and defend it. Instead, opponents were able to portray the charter schools idea as having been introduced by stealth, as if it were something to be ashamed of – which it wasn’t.

The impression that it wasn’t quite kosher was reinforced by the peculiar decision to place charter schools outside the Official Information Act. Again, this enabled the usual array of interest groups bent on protecting the status quo in education to howl that the government had something to hide.
And it didn’t help that the politician nominally behind charter schools, associate education minister John Banks, is arguably the most discredited man in Parliament. The more he was kept out of public view the better.

It fell to former ACT president Catherine Isaac, chairwoman of the partnership schools working group, to go to bat for the proposal, which she did coolly and professionally. But she often seemed to be battling alone against a phalanx of well-organised (and largely taxpayer-funded) opponents.
It became almost a textbook example of how to allow the other side to dictate the running. But if the worth of the charter schools proposal can be measured by the sheer fury of the opposition, as I believe it can, then we’re on to a good thing. And if we’re not, monitoring will soon expose any shortcomings.

After all, it’s not as if the entire primary school sector is being handed holus-bolus to a dodgy Las Vegas-based corporation run by men who drive around in stretch limos with tinted windows, even if some of the wilder statements made by charter schools opponents gave that impression.
* * *

PART OF ME sometimes wishes that the Chinese security men who roughed up Greens co-leader Russel Norman outside Parliament a couple of years ago would come back and do the job properly.
There’s something deeply irritating about the way Dr Norman pops up like a hyperactive jack in the box night after night on the television news. He looks so pleased with himself – as well he might, since he’s in the safe position of never having to do anything other than criticise.

He reached a 10 on the irritation scale last week when he crowed that small retail investors – the so-called “mums and dads” – had ended up with a relatively small proportion of shares in Mighty River Power.
The implication was that partial privatisation was all a con, designed to enrich already wealthy institutions and big investors. What Dr Norman failed to mention was that mums and dads had almost certainly been frightened off by fears that the newly announced Labour-Greens electricity policy would render their investment worthless. In other words, what Dr Norman criticised as a political trick by the government was in fact the entirely predictable consequence of his own cynical machinations.

Perversely, the Labour-Greens policy ensured that the big sharemarket players ended up with a disproportionately large slice of the partially privatised company – hardly something for the Left to be proud of.
While I don’t relish the thought of the Greens finding themselves in government, there would be some consolation in the prospect of Dr Norman having his own feet held to the fire for a change.

In the meantime he should realise the public doesn’t have an infinite appetite for tiresome carping. It might be in his interests to dial it back a bit.
* * *

THERE IS a connection, though it may not be obvious, between free breakfasts in schools and police pursuits of rogue drivers.
When police become reluctant to pursue law-breaking drivers for fear of causing a fatal crash, more people are encouraged to try it on. 

In the same way, when parents realise it doesn’t matter if they don’t provide breakfast for their children because the school will, more will decide it’s okay to send the kids off each morning with an empty stomach.
Just as police often get the blame when a fleeing driver wraps his car around a tree, so it will become the government’s fault that children are hungry, even though their parents may have the resources to feed them. Both involve a transfer of moral responsibility.

Child poverty is an appalling thing, but you have to wonder where all this might lead. Once people are relieved of personal responsibility for their actions (or failure to act, as in the case of negligent parents), almost anything becomes possible.


1 comment:

Jigsaw said...

Having taught in an extremely centralised education system(Ontario) and in New Zealand - I can say that we already have a reasonably independent education system-of which Charter Schools are to be a variant. The real problem was as you say, the way it was presented and the vocal opposition of the teacher unions who see their power being diluted. The other fact forgotten or overlooked is that we already have Maori language schools which are already almost in the Charter School mould-state funded and largely unanswerable in terms of their effectiveness-and employing unqualified teachers as well. It is these schools that are a ticking timebomb in New Zealand education. They will produce students who can do great kapa haka but are otherwise grossly undereducated and also have a huge chip on their shoulders and a great sense of entitlement as Maori. A recipe for disaster.