The National-ACT coalition formed last year has been nothing but disaster, after disaster, after hollow promise, after disaster. They are hell bent on selling off everything that the public owns. State housing occupied for generations, built as a promise for the people of Aotearoa, the land we stand on so that they might mine it away, the minerals under the land our homes are built on, the ports that bring in millions of dollar in revenue that is reinvested in our roads, public parks, museums, art galleries etc.... and now even the right to a decent education. They now want to privatise the schools for profit. These new schools -"charter schools" as they are called – are the newest development in the government’s plan to socialise the cost of raising a generation and allowing the privatise enterprises to keep the profits, gleaned from the pockets of the tax payer.
Charter schools have been nothing but a disaster from their inception. They originate out of Augusto Pinochet's neo-fascist regime in Chile. There Pinochet was advised by the “Chicago boys” (an elite clique of Harvard professors who wished to test neo-liberal economics before unleashing it on America) to begin charter schools. It was an absolute, unmitigated disaster. American investors and businesses charged exorbitant fees, equivalent to a year’s wages for the average Chilean citizen just for entry, resulting in only the wealthy elite being able to offer their children a decent education.
Though the average worker in Chile was not able to be taught basic literacy and numeracy skills, it lined the pockets of the conglomerates and gave the children of the rich an education that was on par with any first world country (though they still, by and large, used the public schooling system). It was a match made in hell – keep the poor people illiterate and deprive them of the means to make themselves rich to eliminate future completion (or even keep themselves from starving) all whilst reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars from other rich families in the process. When speaking about the birth of neo-liberal economics, often historians talk speak of Thatcher’s Britain or Reagans America, though in truth it started with Pinochet’s horrific regime in Chile, and charter schools were a big part of the early regime.
The objectives of a charter school are two. The first one is absolving the government of all responsibility for the education of its youth. The ACT party’s model will take a page from America's model and make the charter schools grade the owning corporation’s responsibility completely, despite the fact that they will be given huge amounts of tax payer money. The second is to continue with the purely ideological assault on the publicly owned assets. The child of today is the tax-paying, wage-earning, voting citizen of tomorrow and there can be no bigger investment in our society than in properly educating our young, and allowing this investment to be handled by those whose only stake in the welfare of students is profit, is insane. It is absolutely not to, as John Banks (leader of the ACT party and associate education minister) put it, “offer a better education for the underachievers of this country”. The evidence that charter schools are useless as a method of providing education is overwhelming.
Massey University released a press report warning that charter schools may do more harm than good to the students it aims to help - the so called “under-achievers”. This research has been taken from mainly three countries – the United States, Sweden and Great Britain. Almost every single report provides clear evidence that the charter school program provides no real benefit for anybody, aside from the businesses who “lease the schools”. An independent study conducted in the United States by the education research association confirms this in their last report on the subject, written by veterans who each have years of experience of dealing with the charter school system. In fact, it actually states that the under-achievers do worse in charter schools than in public. An extract from this report, freely available online, states that “While a few highly motivated individuals and families may (though it is note guaranteed) benefit, charter schools do not provide more choice for most families, also they often promote greater inequality of educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, and fail to eliminate the long tail of under-achievement”. In Massey University’s press release, a professor of education, John O'Neill, states that “it is, for example, quite common to lead to an increase in inequality based on culture, race or socio-economic status.” The president of the PPTA for Great Britain said that it is a failed model that had “only 17% of students doing better in a charter school than in a state-run school”. That 17% is calculated from all those enrolled, not just the “under-achievers”. This is the model that the Aotearoa charter school system will be based on.
Due to the design of the charter school program, there are several inherent flaws that cannot be fixed and will punish all students who attend, some more than others. Charter schools are absolved of most of the responsibilities that a school has – for example to teach a wide curriculum, employ qualified teachers, undergoing regular inspections, etc... although the charter school has none of these responsibilities. They can hire unqualified teachers and have no set curriculum, meaning that they can teach whatever they want, at any level of depth that they care to go to. The government issues the school with a “charter”, which is a standard that they must operate at and is usually valid for between 3 and 5 years. However there is nothing from stopping the corporations that seek to run our schools from abusing this – it is a binding contract. The only disciplinary action is to warn them that the charter will not be renewed. This is the only way to prevent them from making the same mistakes again during an active charter. They can only choose not to renew the contract (which is 3 to 5 years long). If this course of action is taken, it leaves the students of that school to find a new one. They will have to be moved around to other schools, increasing the strain on the new schools resources, overcrowding classrooms, possibly removing small children and teenagers from their social circles and causing disruption amongst older students who may be sitting nationally assessed examinations later on in that year.
In short there is no evidence that shows charters schools as a favourable option for students. A quality education should be provided free to all students regardless of any factors – social, ethnic or economic. As a socialist group, we support the free exchange of information and encourage learning as much as possible so that we may have a more enlightened society, to ensure that everyone learns the life and social skills needed to succeed at an early age. The idea of charter schools is diabolical, a sign of a weak, gutless government who wishes to absolve its self of its responsibility to those who put them into power. This is inexcusable.
The teachers union has answered the call, the universities are backing them and several members of parliament, most notably Hone Hariwera of the MANA party, have taken the stand to decry this act of educational sabotage. Many activists, many different political groups and many average working Joes have united themselves under the banner “Aotearoa is not for sale”. This is a part of a movement to stop the national governments vicious assault on our assets. One can hear the coalition’s war drums beating now, and the proposition of these charter schools have not escaped our cross hair. Quite the contrary – it sits squarely within it, along with the Glen Innes housing struggle, fracking, deep sea oil-drilling, union busting, the continued war on workers and other horrors that national and ACT would force onto us. There shall be no white flag, no deals for peace, no surrender. The members of the two opposing teams have made themselves known. The line has been drawn. Though the task of stopping the government’s onslaught is gigantic, we can win this! We have managed to keep the ports from privatisation through the mobilisation of a powerful union, strong industrial and protest action combined with an outstanding display of international solidarity. Surely we can protect our schools too! But let us make no mistake - this will not be achieved by accepting it as inevitable and watching passively as it happens, but only through a sustained, well organised and co-ordinated fight back fight back!
Though it has been three months since the first Aotearoa is Not for Sale march, the struggle continues until the battle is won. Last month Labour Party leader David Shearer, in one of his more radical moments said “If you push the asset sales bill through here, the battle will continue on the streets.” Education is one of the biggest assets we have, we cannot afford to, we must not allow for it to be pushed aside for profit.
- George Mitchell, SA