The Curious Case of Charter Schools

I recently shared a graphic of our Crown-Maori Relations Minister, Hon Kelvin Davis, on my LinkedIn. Imposed over the top of the graphic was a 2017 quote from the Minister when he was in Opposition. It said “I will resign from Parliament if the next Labour Government closes either of the charter schools in Whangarei.”

On 8 February 2018 our Education Minister, Hon Chris Hipkins announced the introduction of the Education Amendment Bill, designed to "restore democracy in and strengthen the public education system". The Minister said the Bill would end "the previous government’s failed...charter school experiments...Charter schools were driven by ideology rather than evidence." My first thought was does that mean we are going to loose our Crown-Maori Relations Minister already? And then I thought, wait are our Charter Schools really failing?

On 8 February 2018 our Education Minister, Hon Chris Hipkins announced the introduction of the Education Amendment Bill, designed to "restore democracy in and strengthen the public education system". The Minister said the Bill would end "the previous government’s failed...charter school experiments...Charter schools were driven by ideology rather than evidence." My first thought was does that mean we are going to loose our Crown-Maori Relations Minister already? And then I thought, wait are our Charter Schools really failing?

Given the Minister's statement that the failure of Charter Schools was driven by evidence I decided to do some digging. Evidence is a funny thing. Rather than emotion or ideology, evidence relies on an available body of information, indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid. It's pretty hard to argue against evidence with emotion.

The National Secretary of New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) supported our Education Minister's claim that these schools were "ACT and National's failed experiment - integrating them back into the state school system is good for kids and teachers because kids in mainstream state schools do better.” I couldn't help but chuckle at the irony of this comment: Charter Schools were an ACT Party initiative to try an innovative approach towards educating students who weren't flourishing at state schools. Even Willie Jackson, the man who is now our Employment Minister in a Labour-led Government, said on Charter Schools "I'm getting tired of people saying they don't want us to experiment on their kids. Well, I'm sick of our kids failing," pointing out there were a number of mainstream schools failing kids. Here, here Mr Jackson!

I’m getting tired of people saying they don’t want us to experiment on their kids. Well, I’m sick of our kids failing.
— Hon Willie Jackson, 18 September 2014

In the same article, the Post Primary Teachers' Association (PPTA) president of the time, Angela Roberts, commented that the resources directed towards Charter Schools are "an ineffectual and inefficient use of resources". If you want to have a fight about inefficient use of public resources, ask yourself why taxpayers are now paying for a brand new generation of New Zealanders to get their tertiary education for free? It's certainly been my life ambition to pay for a fellow lawyers University fees before I've even paid off my own. Not.

But back to the curious case of Charter Schools - are they really a failed experiment? Here is some evidence - it's not monetary value or NCEA attainment - rather it's real life experiences for readers to ponder. And as you read, ask yourself does the NZEI Secretary’s view that kids do better in our mainstream state schools really ring true for everyone?

“At Massey High I never really had a family, I always hung around bad influence. I smoked and drank alcohol, I was rude and at the state I was in you could call me another ‘street bum’. I’ve improved so much, I haven’t drank or touch a smoke since 2015... I am a different person.
Baylie Tomokino, Student, Vanguard Military School

 The teachers here, they care about us. They go the extra mile for us...My favourite part of school is the [physical] training. It helps keep me activated during classes.”
Isaac Faitau, Student, Pacific Advance Senior School

“It’s a really warm, loving environment,” says Bronwyn Mau. Her experience of the kura has been a positive one. She cites the teachers’ engagement with her six-year-old son Marcus, two-way communication with the school, and support for parents.
Bronwyn Mau, Parent of Marcus, Student, Te Kura Maori O Waatea

“Being a recruit at Vanguard [Charter School] has been tough but an amazing journey. I had previously attended Mission Heights Junior College in South/East Auckland back in 2014-2015. If I had stayed there, I know for a fact I would have not passed level 1 and level 2.” 
Morgyn Reeves, Student, Vangard Military School

At Massey High I never really had a family, I always hung around bad influence. I smoked and drank alcohol, I was rude and at the state I was in you could call me another ‘street bum’. I’ve improved so much, I haven’t drank or touch a smoke since 2015... I am a different person.
— Baylie Tomokino, Student, Vanguard Military School

Putting the political venom spitting to one side and it is clear these schools work for some kids. To me that is evidence of this success. I strongly despise taxpayer-funded waste, whether that be in the form of wasted money, wasted opportunity or worst still, enabling wasted lives. So I would wholeheartedly support the decision to shut down the Charter Schools model if it was having had no genuine impact. However, these real life messages from real life New Zealanders tell a different story.

Policy creation should be based off a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. Good policy involves gathering information, clear drafting and releasing the policy for stakeholder engagement. Unfortunately it may just have been the Government bench politicians, the NZEI and PPTA who have had their say so far, and why we now have a Bill before the House that is causing societal uproar.

If you don't like what you are reading then it is more important than ever before that you get involved in New Zealand's Parliamentary process (ways to do so follow!). At the time of writing, the Education Amendment Bill was on the Order Paper (which is just a big daily diary for the House) but not yet available for debate. Once the Bill is available for its first reading you will be able to tune into Parliament TV and see what members of Parliament are saying: expect fiery discussions in the debating chamber!

After first reading, the Bill gets referred to a Select Committee. Every piece of law that goes through New Zealand's Parliament is examined by a Select Committee. The Committee is able to examine laws in much greater detail than can be done in the House. I'm picking this Bill will be referred to the Education and Workforce Select Committee, chaired by National Party MP Sarah Dowie. You can find a list of MPs on that Select Committee here.

The Committee usually has six months to examine the bill and prepare a report for the House. This is where you come in (yes you, seriously). Select Committees generally invite public submissions and hold public hearings to listen to some submissions. A submission is just a fancy way of you telling Members of Parliament in Wellington what a proposed law (Bill) is going to do to you. You can tell them good stuff and you of course can tell them the bad! After hearing submissions the Committee will work through the issues raised and decide what changes, if any, should be made to the Bill, and report back to the House.

If you are a part of the charter school ecosystem, whether that be as a student, parent, teacher, tutor or supporter, and you would like assistance presenting to the Select Committee on the Bill which will disestablish Charter Schools, then please get in touch.

When I put my post on LinkedIn my intention was to bring light to this issue. I do not want to see Hon Kelvin Davis resign over this. I do want to tautoko him for acknowledging the real life impact these schools are having on many Kiwi kids lives. He may be bound by Collective responsibility now, but if we put all the political showboating to one side - it's hard to argue these schools are not changing lives for the better.

NZEI says their job is the most important job in New Zealand: educating for the future. I would have to agree that educating New Zealand children well is one of the best ways to ensure a vibrant, successful, prosperous future for our country. But don't kowtow to ideology because one small part of your constituency demands it. Politicians - there are hands raised that want you to listen. Please hear the voices of the moko that will run our great country and sustain your pensions long after you have retired.

Holly Bennett is of Te Arawa descent (Ngati Whakaue, Ngati Pikiao). Ngati Whakaue runs the Te Rangihakahaka Centre for Science and Technology, an education and science hub for all learners in the Rotorua District. It is a Charter School.