Replicating failure – John Banks and charter schools


Friday’s announcement by Act leader and Associate Education Minister John Banks of the Board which will select successful charter school applicants raises two important issues.

Firstly the appointment of the board and its announcement was premature – a slap in the face for parliament which has not yet even heard from the select committee considering the proposal, let alone passed legislation enabling these schools to be established. Fellow Act Party member and chair of the Charter School Working Group Catherine Isaacs did something similar late last year when she used her position to call for expressions of interest in running charter schools despite the select committee having not heard even the first submission.

The second issue relates to the makeup of this John Banks Board. There is not a single person on this group who has a track record of improving educational achievement for children from low-income communities despite the fact this is the very group the government says it wants to target with charter schools.

This is not surprising because charter schools are not about raising student achievement but are a political response to a corporate problem – how can we get into public education and make private profit from government spending?

But before we condemn charter schools out of hand we must ask the key question – do they raise education achievement? The answer is a resounding NO. Every country which has gone down the charter school path – the US, UK and Sweden were held up as examples by Act – has seen its education system go backwards in international comparisons such as through PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

In the last PISA tests in 2009 New Zealand was 7th in reading, 13th in maths and 7th in science – well ahead of any of the charter school countries. The US was 17th, 31st and 33rd, the UK 26th, 28th and 16th and Sweden 20th, 26th and 29th respectively of the 65 countries who took part – including all OECD countries.

These charter school countries have slipped in the rankings despite two decades of letting the private sector into their education systems. “Epic fail” would not be too strong to describe their educational performance. Charter schools have led these education systems to become fragmented and incoherent and the horror stories are thick on the ground.

Mismanagement, lack of accountability, poorly resourced classrooms, untrained, unqualified teachers on low pay and poor educational achievement are the norm.

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After 20 years of charter schools in the US the most comprehensive study showed just 17% of charter schools outperforming public schools, 37% performed worse than public schools and the rest showed no difference. The high achievers either had selected intakes or sophisticated ways of expelling less academically able students. In KIPP school for example – another example paraded by ACT – 40% of African American boys “drop out” before they reach 8th grade (Year 9 in NZ)

John Banks wants the worst features of charter schools here. Untrained and unqualified teachers are essential to the private sector because they are cheaper and this allows for greater profits to be stripped from the schools. Being exempt from the Official Information Act and Ombudsman as Banks wants also means we will never know the true extent to which we and our kids are being ripped off.

Instead of mimicking failure we should emulate successful countries like Finland whose PISA results were 3rd, 6th and 2nd respectively. No charter schools in Finland – just a heavily resourced and very high quality public education system. That’s what we need here.

The government has made much of the “long tail of underachievement’ in New Zealand’s education system where children from low-income families (including disproportionate numbers of Maori and Pacifika children) achieve poorly at school. We do have a longer tail than some countries but our poorest performers still do much better than the poorest performers in most surveyed countries.

More importantly though our long tail of underachievement is in fact our long tail of poverty and inequality – a situation created by the neo-liberal free market policies which ACT, National and Labour foisted upon the country from 1984.

Reversing these policies will be an important part of raising student achievement for the children of the poor.

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  1. Worse than Charter Schools being the “McDonalds” of education are the lies that people like John Banks spread.

    When he was interviewed on 2 August 2012, on Radio NZ’s “Checkpoint” programme, he stated,

    “… because I know, Suzie [RNZ interviewer] , that for the kids that are not engaged in the education system today, abandoning them to the dole is not good enough. This does work in Britain, does work in America, does work in FINLAND [my emphasis], does work in Switzerland, and this special partnbership schools are going to work here. “

    If Banks wasn’t lying (?!) then he’s woefully ignorant.

    Because Finland doesn’t have a bar of cheap, corporate-driven “Charter Schools”.

  2. There seems to be a lot of talk about charter schools with one side saying they will be great the other side they will be a failure, who is the average kiwi to believe?
    John, can you please tell me what was the name of that most comprehensive study where you quote the facts and figures from?

  3. More importantly though our long tail of underachievement is in fact our long tail of poverty and inequality…

    All by itself, the govt’s resolute determination to ignore this obvious fact would be enough reason to treat their charter schools plan with suspicion. If politicians are proposing some action as a solution to a problem, and at the same time pretending the problem is something other than it actually is, look for an ulterior motive. In ACT’s case, the ulterior motive is ideological commitment to privatisation; in National’s case, it’s just good old union-busting.

  4. The problem is that it doesn’t matter if Charter Schools are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – if they work it will be by accident because the reason for championing them is pure ideology, not educational strategy.

  5. Has anyone else noticed that the frames on John Banks glasses make him look like one of the Marx Brothers?

  6. Please …..The term ‘Charter Schools” is a deliberate misnomer, just like the ‘anti smacking’ legislation a name which opponents successfully managed to get adopted by the general (dumb) voting public).
    Everyone I know has been successfully conned into using the expression ‘Charter School’ an innocuous term designed to allay fears…..private theme schools funded by you the taxpayer.
    So called ‘Charter Schools’ are business commercial schools with covert or overt agendas…maybe some one can come up with a better name.
    The clever (hate to say it) corrupt manipulation of John Key by John Banks to support his dumb stupid view of educational philosophy is mind boggling.
    And changing the words ‘Charter Schools’ to ‘Partnership Schools’ is such a blatant con trick attempt at re-spinning that I fear most New Zealanders will fall for it.
    We may soon have ‘Amway Charter Schools’, ‘Destiny Charter Schools’ ‘Business Round Table Charter Schools’, ‘Communist Charter Schools’.
    Thanks to the two Johnnies…

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