Small parties do not get much credit for the occasional policy they are able to put into practice. The governing party tends to take over the policy and make it its own. Charter schools may be an exception. The policy is firmly grounded in the Act Party's philosophy that public money should be spent as consumers choose, not as state servants decree.
If Act had its way, the entire budget for public schools would be divided by the number of school-age pupils in the population and each would receive a voucher to redeem at the school that suited them. National has agreed to no more than a trial of this idea.
Initially it was going to fund charter schools - or "partnership schools" as it prefers - only in disadvantaged areas of South Auckland and Christchurch. But when applications were invited and evaluated, Education Minister Hekia Parata was sufficiently impressed to widen the pilot. This week, she and Act leader John Banks announced five applications had been accepted for schools in Northland and Albany as well as in South Auckland.
It is no surprise that three of the five are Maori initiatives, one in Whangarei proposed by the He Puna Marama Charitable Trust, one in Whangaruru by the Nga Parirau Matauranga Trust and one from the Rise Up Trust in Mangere.
Charter schools in the United States have attracted most interest from minorities who feel mainstream education is failing them.
Nor is it surprising that another applicant wants to offer a military-style academy for youth in their final years of secondary school. The Vanguard Military School will be at Albany where other private primary and secondary schools have been established in recent years.
Only one of the successful applicants proclaims itself Christian, and the Villa Education Trust does not propose to teach religion at its South Auckland Middle School. Fears that public money might be used for teaching biblical fundamentalism have been allayed. The Destiny Church did not make the cut.
The choice of locations is interesting. Northland is an area where there are well documented socio-economic issues, as well as issues with educational achievement. It will be interesting to see whether trying something different will work. And even though Hone Harawira is ideologically opposed to the whole idea of partnership schools, he has had the grace to will the Northland initiatives (which are in his electorate) well. He was quoted thus earlier in the week:
“I’ve got mixed emotions about government announcing the funding of the first five charter schools” said MANA leader and Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira.
“I know how hard it is trying to meet the exacting standards set by the Ministry of Education” said Harawira, “and yet while everybody else is playing by the rules, here’s the government throwing money at charter schools which don’t have to use the national curriculum, or be held up to national standards, or have to put qualified teachers in front of the kids, or be accountable for their decisions under the Official Information Act.”
“On the other hand, I know the people involved in the two Tai Tokerau projects and they are genuinely good people, dedicated to doing the best for Maori kids. The Leadership Academy already does a wonderful job and the Whangaruru project, although new, kicks off with the best of intentions. And the kids they’re going to help are going to be young Maori, so I wish them all the best.”
How Harawira's attitude contrasts with that of the teacher unions, and the Green and Labour Parties. For them, the politics of partnership schools are of far more importance than the outcomes to the children whose parents will choose to send them to these new schools. The Herald editorial touches on that as we have done previously, so there is no need to repeat the Left's tired rhetoric. They could take a leaf from Hone's book.
And the leader writer closes with the focus where it should be; on the 20% of children to whom the current system is not delivering:
As in the US, charter schools' futures will depend on their educational ideas producing the desired results. These schools are just an extension of the idea that diversity is healthy, choice is fair and an element of competition never did a public service much harm. This can now be put to the test.
These schools will be under intense scrutiny for their use of public money. If they work, even for a small number of students, that money will have been well spent.
We agree. We hope that National continues to govern after the 2014 General Election if for no other reason than to give these schools the opportunity to deliver a new and different strategy on teaching students who are struggling in mainstream schools. Who knows; the fears of the teacher unions, Labour and the Greens may even prove to be groundless.
New Zealand will be a better place in the future if more children have the opportunity to succeed by way of alternative approaches in education. We ought not be consigning our children to failure so early in their lives, and partnership schools may provide part of the solution to a vexing problem. On that basis alone, a decent trial is well worth the investment.