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  • rmacculloch

Charter Schools are a worthwhile addition to our school system - but ACT is mis-selling why they are Good and Labour is mis-selling why they are Bad.

We know the old saying, "Never trust a politician", and the Charter School debate is a good example of it. Charter Schools receive public funding, yet "are exempt from most statutory requirements of traditional public schools, including mandates around .. human capital management .. curriculum & instructional practices, and governance & management structures". That's a quote from Roland Fryer, an African American economist who is one of America's leading scholars who has studied Charters for the past two decades. Opposition Leader Hipkins has done the media rounds slamming Charters - arguing they are bad because there is no evidence they perform better, on average, than regular state schools. Meanwhile ACT has defended Charters, arguing they lift standards.

The results of the economics literature on Charters to some extent backs Hipkins' claim that "on average" charters do not outperform regular public schools. However, it doesn't follow they're bad. The crux of the issue which both Labour & ACT don't want to talk much about is summed up by Fryer who says, "Charter schools were developed, in part, to serve as an R&D engine for traditional public schools, resulting in a wide variety of school strategies and outcomes". Charters allow experimentation - some turn into roaring successes, others failures. Much of economics has now gone the way of medicine - we just don't know what works in the real world from theory alone. We need to see what works by doing trials - and Charters allow us to this kind of R&D. If a particular practice is found to work brilliantly, then it can be picked up by the whole public school system. If not, it can be abandoned.

This "R&D engine" explanation is consistent with the economics findings that Charters, on average, may not do better than regular public schools, which Hipkins picked up on. But they are still valuable since Charters may discover ways of running schools that can then be implemented nation-wide and thereby lift national school standards for all. For this reason, President Obama wrote in 2012 that, "For years, charter schools have brought new ideas to the work of educating our sons and daughters… [They] serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country". Fryer sums things up by saying, "Market-based reforms, such as school choice or school vouchers, have, at best, a modest impact on student achievement .. This suggests that competition alone is unlikely to significantly increase the efficiency of the public school system .. Similarly, efforts to manipulate key educational inputs [by the likes of our Ministry of Education] have been hampered by an inability to identify school inputs that predict student achievement".

My suspicion why ACT's leader Seymour is reluctant to publicly talk about how Charters can be used to help trial new ideas in education is that its not a sound-bite the PR & marketing people (who are the tail wagging the dog these days) consider would play well. But he should ignore them and tell it as it is. Better to try out something innovative on one school than engage in one vast unfortunate experiment on every school that turns into a fiasco. It is this latter approach that NZ has gone down these past six years. My view is that if Hipkins thinks he can rely on the Education Ministry to work out how to "manipulate key educational inputs" to achieve better outcomes throughout the country by coming up with theories that its staff & advisers think are wonderful - before seeing what happens when implemented - then he's misguided. Better to experiment on one school, than on the whole country.



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