Child labour has a long and torrid history under capitalism, Victorian England was a vile cesspit of rampant child exploitation. Children above the age of four were routinely put to work in the most degrading and dangerous of ways. In Daniel Defoe's day he thought it admirable that in the vicinity of Halifax, Yorkshire scarcely anybody above the age of 4 was idle.
Children were routinely put to work at barely five, in coal and iron mines, few lived beyond twenty five. For those lucky enough they may have been put to work in debtors workhouses with their families at least. For those in the direst of circumstances there was the wretched existence of prostitution.
It was only through the brave and moral struggle of workers that they were able to free their children from the capricious grip of capital, and even then for but a time. As James Connolly said to a priest denouncing workers “as the rule of the mob”:
“In the course of its upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration on bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life; softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it; compelled trial by jury; abolished the death penalty… and today is fighting to take children from the factory and the mine and put them in school.”
Thus with this lens we must examine any dialogue on schools, our children’s refuge from the workhouse, The history of children in our society is coloured by a foul history, which continues today in many nations, one we must not forget, and it is this lens we must turn to closer examination of charter schools the newest proposed cure to a sick and ailing school system, or so we are told.
However a recent study by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) that the amount spent on children’s education was only to a point important. Once a ceiling of $41,600 was reached, further increase were unrelated to student performance. Countries such as the United States who have charter schools, spent more than $100,000 per student yet showed no greater performance than countries who spent substantially less. Of special note to PISA was New Zealand who is a top performer despite spending “substantially less”.
Far more damning was a report by Massey University education experts who found in a study, "The evidence is clear that charter schools have the potential to cause harm to the very groups of students they are supposed to help,"
The study then went on to note that charter schools undermine core principals of education "Education does not exist solely to promote financial or employment success: it serves highly important social purposes including the promotion of equality of opportunity and informed citizenship."
The report further noted that charter schools even undermine core rights of member of society outside of the classroom as a "radical departure" from the principles of social democracy and civic participation because, unlike state schools, parents were not represented by a board of trustees.
So if the evidence is so negative, what are charter schools? Who is interested in them? And why should we have them?
Charter schools are funded by the very taxes which have been put aside to pay for the education of children, under the current public system public schools are not required to make a profit. But as a business funded out of the taxes workers pay, charter schools will be required to make a profit in order to pay shareholders as well as expand their operations to compete with other schools public or private. This is an inefficiency not currently present within public schools and can only result in two outcomes. First that charter schools receive more funding than public schools to ensure they make a profit, this would lead to greater taxes. Or secondly and more likely, spend less on children’s education in order to take a portion of the funding in profits.
Charter schools are not required to follow ministry of education guidelines, this sets a number of serious questions around the rights of children and teachers within the charter school framework.
Charter schools set their own time table including school hours and terms, this means there is no maximum to the amount of time children will be required to spend at school. In many ways school to children are like a job to adults as they are required to spend large amounts of time concentrating even against their will. A maximum limit to the amount of time children spend in school ensures that there is a balance between school and other life activities including leisure and play. This was something fiercely fought for in New Zealand and resulted in the forty hour week. Children required to spend long hours at school will see long hours spent at work away from their families as normal.
Teachers will also be required to spend longer hours at schools in order to ensure children are supervised and capable in educational tasks, teachers already and frequently spend long hours after school assessing and planning the activities of their students. This coupled with the longer hours could make their positions untenable, which would result in the loss of many good teachers.
Charter schools are being rolled out across the country in poor suburbs and towns where the most vulnerable section of our population resides. Charter schools are free to choose their students unlike public schools which are required to ensure universally accessible education. This will see students who were traditionally found to be problematic excluded from education as other charter schools will refuse to take them, and public schools to geographically distant or overcrowded to help. Perhaps more disturbingly students who suffer from disabilities yet bravely attend school, will be more than likely turned away or discriminated against as these students require specialist accessibility equipment and/or teachers the charter schools will most likely see these students as a drain on their profits, hence turn them away in favour of able bodied students who require less in the way of invested energy and capital on their part.
Public schools will likely become unusually overrepresented with students who are problematic or disabled. While funding for schools in New Zealand is already low, the resources needed to ensure a reasonable education for these children will be an additional strain. The likely result of which is a fall in the standards of public schools as any funding which might have been earmarked for enriching education is utilized to ensure basic accessibility, if there is not an outright shortfall of funding, which public schools will have no choice but to go to parents cap in hand just to ensure continued operation. Charter schools are under no obligation to ensure teacher working conditions meet ministry of education standards, this will most likely see growing class sizes, poor pay for teachers, attacks on unionization and non-qualified scabs. Larger class sizes will mean charter schools can increase their profits by paying less for teachers per student, as well as paying teachers physically less, if teachers fight back union busting with scab labour is more than likely to follow. Teachers unions have long been an organization advocating fair conditions for teachers AND students in schools successful attacks would be a further erosion of a layer of protection on school conditions.
Democracy within business is virtually unheard of. The people who work within a business or consume it’s commodities have no say, only ownership of a business gives you any right in this regard, Charter schools will see boards of trustees and parent teacher associations replaced by boards of directors and chief executive officers. Parents teachers and communities, who are those most informed and accountable to the needs of their children will have no means or right to have a say about their children’s education, the values of the community will fall on deaf ears as the board of directors and chief executive officers only true masters are the shareholders, who have not invested for democracy, education or stronger communities but profit. The key advocates of charter schools are the Act party who has said that these schools were “core act in terms of philosophy” this statement coupled with acts ideology begins to show the reality of the charter school ethos.
Act is a libertarian party in that they advocate little or no government power, however they advocate the capitalist market to replace the power vacuum which would remain. The capitalist market has shown over the last few years conclusively that it has massive systemic flaws. Vast swathes of people over the last few years have been losing their homes, livelihoods and millions a year even their lives, while banks and corporates have received trillions of dollars in bailouts.
The most basic relationship of the capitalist market is one of exploitation where a worker is payed less than the value of the commodity he produces in order to make a profit for the capitalist which can be reinvested for further exploitation. It is this basic relationship which underpins Act’s ideology and the charter school ethos. It is a way of extracting profit from schooling, from children.
The abolishment of child labour was a blow for the capitalist as a vast quantity of poorly paid labour was removed from circulation, capitalists had to pay more for labour thus hurting their profits. Charter schools allow the capitalist to make a profit from schooling children just as they did for working them. Once that child has grown they will then sell their labour to the capitalist and pay for the next generation to be schooled via taxes into good exploited workers. Hence the capitalist increases their profits by making a profit on not just the labour of the worker but also the education they need to be exploited. Education they will receive as children but will pay for to the capitalist later as taxes turned profit. This is the basic reason for charter schools, to increase profits through child exploitation. Addition to this initial exploitative relationship there is a second beneficial reason for the capitalists to desire control over education.
Charter schools are funded by the taxpayer however they are run by business. This in itself is a contradiction as the interests of the majority of taxpayers (workers) and business are contradictory. Workers wish to secure the largest wage possible for the smallest output of labour. Business wishes to pay the smallest possible wage for the largest amount of labour. Hence workers desire their children to have an education which prepares them to combat business in securing a superior wage, through intelligence, cooperation and knowledge. Business desires a weak workforce with an inferior education which leaves them ill prepared to combat the attempts to depress wages. Cultural hegemony is when one group dominates society through the promotion of it’s rules and values which ensure it’s continued position of power. Increasingly the young are questioning the position of the capitalist, they question why a few may holiday in the Maldives in super-yachts while the multitude toil to afford a home and why an increasing majority will never own such a home. Why when banks are bailed out millions of dollars the majority are made to pay for their mistakes. These thoughts are treasonous to the capitalist, they will not suffer such thoughts. To the capitalist it is clear the banks must be bailed out to save them from the rapacious greed of the working classes for credit. This is the second goal of charter schools to have a means by which to install cultural hegemony, to teach no thought foreign to their perverse logic, to stifle democratic debate under a thousand droning voices repeating word perfect the virtues of the “free” market.
We must not allow our children to be exploited, brain washed and morally crushed under the weight of business run schooling. The list of heroes who fought to free children is so long I dare not repeat it here. But is also a struggle which continues to this day where in most of the world child labour continues unabated and our government even seeks to make “free” trade agreements with such nations.
We must realize though our education system is not perfect it is only through a reorganization of society itself that we can create a new conscious, intelligent and critical member of society A society where education does not start and finish at the school gate but continues out into all avenues of life, where both experience and education are recognized as intellectual resources rewarding both individuals and communities with richer experience and resource. As James Connolly we must go out in to the streets in unity to fight against charter schools, against exploitation of children, for democracy. In fighting we too will learn new skills. Skills that will be needed to end not only the exploitation of our children but which can be applied to end the exploitation of children in all nations. Skills that will enrich our communities and allow them to formulate new ideas for social organization and arm them with the skills to fight for those ideas. A universal education of democratic action, an education even the public school system forsakes. James Connolly fought to take children from the mine to the school. We must take the tools he used, democracy, mass action and unity to end the exploitation we all suffer as workers, low wages, poor democracy and humiliation. The suffering of our children is an extension of our own conditions. All must be free from exploitation, all must have democracy.
-David J, Socialist Aotearoa