What price liberty?

Charter schools in the US, academies in the UK and partnership schools in New Zealand are all attracting controversy. While the freedom they bring is appealing, the potential pitfalls are not. Laura McInerney reports

My colleague sat, head in hands, despairing. For nearly a decade her daughter has eaten breakfast every morning with her father. He cooks, they eat together, chat about their day, then go their separate ways having spent some quality time together. Then the school letter arrived: "From September, all students will receive a free nutritious breakfast. Students must now be on site from 7.50am to ensure a prompt start." This was not a choice. The letter stated that there could be no exceptions.

Under these circumstances, a parent might normally march into the school to petition the change and, if nobody listened, take it up with a local school authority. But this parent is in the US and she sends her child to a charter school, a state-funded school operating outside the remit of the local school board. Once the school said no, she tells me, there was no further complaint procedure. She could either put up with the situation or leave. Unable to face the trauma of removing her daughter from the school, she capitulated. From September, father-daughter breakfasts are cancelled.

My colleague is not alone. Since 1993, 42 US states have passed laws that allow state-funded schools to operate independently of local government control. Charter schools now account for almost 6 per cent of all US schools. Sweden and the Canadian province of Alberta have also instituted similar systems. More recently, England has allowed new or existing schools to be operated as academies by independent not-for-profit companies. In the coming months, New Zealand is also expected to follow suit. But what is proving so seductive that countries are falling over themselves to do such a thing?

Few people know that charter schools were originally advocated by US teaching unions. Annoyed by government interference in the operation of schools, Albert Shanker, a union leader, wanted a system where schools could get on with the hard business of teaching untouched by politicians.

In Shanker's version of the policy, which he first proposed in the late 1980s, schools would be provided with a "charter" saying what outcomes they should achieve for each child and, as long as those outcomes were met, the local government would have no power to challenge the school's methods. Teachers the world over like this idea very much.

But by the time the first US charter schools were introduced in 1993, the concept had changed considerably. Instead of teachers running schools, for-profit or philanthropic companies were now allowed (and often preferred) to manage them.

Outcomes mentioned in the charters tended to focus on arbitrary multiple- choice test scores instead of holistic learning measures. And, in a bizarre rejection of the policy's originator, several states used the legislation to enforce "no union" clauses forbidding collective bargaining. From that point on, Shanker rejected the scheme as a way of "marketising" education and a fight has been on about its worth ever since.

Two decades on and controversy still reigns. Some charter school companies have achieved positive renown - for example, the Knowledge is Power Program (Kipp). Others have faltered. The Imagine chain was forced to close all its Missouri schools in 2012, leaving about 4,000 students without school places. The state's commissioner of education Chris Nicastro claimed it "would be a disservice" to children to keep the schools open because of academic and financial issues.

Charges of "skimming" the best students are also often levelled at charter schools, although such accusations have never been conclusively proven.

On the other side of the argument, pro-charter reformers point to cities such as New York and New Orleans where the reforms have significantly improved student test scores and attendance.

Free from government control

England's version of the policy is similarly structured to that of the US, and is similarly controversial. Since 2010, English schools have been able to convert to academy status. This means that a school can free itself from local government control and instead be operated by a not-for-profit company. Unlike in the US, schools cannot be operated by for-profit companies and there is no "charter" detailing what performance the school must achieve, although if a government inspection deems the school to be failing then the sponsor can theoretically be removed and another installed. However, this is an extremely rare occurrence and very hard to achieve.

England is also far advanced in terms of the numbers of autonomous schools. In just three years, more than half of all secondary schools (for children aged 11-18) have become academies, although the same is true of only 7 per cent of primaries (for ages 4-11). In the US, the state of Arizona has the highest percentage of charter schools and yet even after two decades it still operates only 24 per cent of its schools in this manner.

New Zealand is also now entering the fray with legislation tabled for partnership schools, a policy negotiated as part of a coalition agreement between two of New Zealand's political parties - Act New Zealand and the National Party - in order to secure the votes of Act's sole MP, John Banks, for National's other policies. Act is a free-market party that has pushed for reform to allow for-profit partnership schools in New Zealand.

Yet New Zealand already has a very successful school system. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, New Zealand students achieved an average of seventh place in the Pisa 2009 rankings, which measure performance in reading, maths and science. The country's national curriculum also garners international praise. So why do ministers believe change is needed? As in the US and the UK, New Zealand politicians have highlighted a student "achievement gap". If separated, New Zealanders of European descent would rank second in the Pisa table whereas Maori and Pasifika students would achieve only 34th place.

But does this talk of "closing the gap" conceal something less wholesome? The proposed legislation means that schools will no longer be subject to the Official Information Act 1982, so that all data held by their owners (including for-profit companies) could be hidden from parents and taxpayers. Concerns have also been raised that the body reviewing applications and granting funds to run partnership schools will be led by Catherine Isaac, former president of Act New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the system of "contracting" schools shows little sign of stopping. And my colleague is still left in despair. Although she feels that her child's school is good in general, her disappointment at not being listened to is palpable. "How ironic," she says, "that by exercising school choice we've ended up with less say over our daughter's education, not more."

I'm fairly certain that Albert Shanker would agree.

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