Posted by: Tom Haig on 01, Jul, 2012
The Charter School Working Group before it turns on itself? (aka King Ghidora, the three headed monster. http://www.giantbomb.com/king-ghidorah/94-4763/)
The charter school initiative has thrown together an unlikely and uneasy alliance. Three distinct ideologies can be discerned amongst the members of the charter school working group, and how these interact will have a major bearing on the final model that is decided on, or whether or not they can decide on one at all.
For people opposed to charters, unravelling this hydra, pointing out the differences between its three heads and turning them on each other could be the way to defeat it.
Tino rangatiratanga is clearly a motivating factor for one of the groups involved. Inspired by the sort of situation the Native Affairs programme showed, Hawaiian charter schools, independent of state regulation give the indigenous Hawaiians a great deal of control over the education of their youth. For some people within Maori education circles, there’s a strong sense that kura, which are still responsible to the Ministry of Education and reviewed by ERO so forth, are dominated too much by Pakeha concerns. Nga Ruahine leader, John Hooker has said that following the poor ERO review of their kura, Te Kura O Nga Ruahine Rangi, and it being placed under Ministry governance, that they would consider becoming a charter school in order to have an education that is ‘by Maori, for Maori.’ On the Charter School Working Group Hana O’Regan represents this view. Ngai Tahu, her iwi, has a strong education plan for their tamariki and mokopuna but has problems with the red-tape and restrictions of state funded kura. Charter schools are seen as a way to get around this, while still receiving state funding to make them viable.
Another head of the hydra is the ‘personalised, 21st century’ learning movement. The enthusiasm of Vicki Buck, founder of Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti and Discovery1, to get involved as soon as the Coalition Agreement was announced shows the opportunity presented to those of this bent. According to proponents of this set of ideas, regular schools can’t or won’t innovate in a way that suits the unique needs or desires of young people in the modern world. Generally this is espoused by middle class parents who have watched lots of Ken Robinson videos and secretly think that their child’s too special for the ‘soul-destroying normality’ of regular schools. Vicki Buck’s disappointment that scores of (or even one) Unlimited type schools have not sprung up in the ten years since it was founded is for her proof that the current system isn’t flexible.
The final head, and the one that actually really contains the brain of the beast, is classic neo-liberalism, represented obviously by Catherine Isaac. The reason that this is the ‘brain of the beast’ is not that it’s smart, but it was this ideology that animated the monster in the first place. According to this theory, the ACT doctrine of faith, unleashing the power of the market in education is what’s needed to solve all its problems – more choices, less regulation and supply and demand will do the rest.
So, what are the tensions between these three? Arguably they just represent another incarnation of the powerful ‘identity politics + neo-liberalism’ discourse that has had such an impact on global politics since the 1980s. It hasn’t fallen apart so far, so why should it now?
The challenges for the three headed hydra are in the details, and I suspect that they will be beginning to see the different ways they are facing on these already.
Firstly there is a problem with accountability. The terms of reference for the working group make it clear that charter schools will have ‘stronger accountability’ than other state schools. This indicates that there will be quantifiable outcomes that they will be obliged to report on. They also need to show that they are ‘addressing educational underachievement’ in terms that the people they’re responsible to can understand. If Maori organisations which are struggling to do this under the current system think that they will be able to do it more easily with a charter school, they could well deluding themselves. Is an ACT driven initiative likely to use the sort of culturally responsive success indicators that organisations like Te Wananga o Raukawa are asking for in order to get around TEC concerns that too many of their students are failing? No. They’re going to want ‘hard measures’, or else they’ll be in even more strife with the Louis Crimp brigade who fund them.
There will be similar problem to this between the 21st century free-thinkers and the neo-libs around the table. For Catherine Isaac’s lot the educational philosophies don’t matter – what matters is the results. This leads to ‘innovations’ like KIPP schools which were name checked in the coalition agreement as a successful model. These are pressure cooker schools which are known by many of the students who leave them in droves as ‘Kids in Prison Programme’. These are the polar opposite of the ‘student centred’, creativity fostering schools that middle class parents want their Sebastian to attend so he can work all day on his clay-mation videos. It is difficult to see someone like Vicki Buck ditching any educational credibility by okaying the opening of schools like this.
Finally, there’s the purpose of these schools, which could well prove to be the deal breaker. Advocates for Maori and the innovative learning crowd do seem to be around the table with a genuine desire to do something to address educational underachievement, and they want to look at the evidence to make sure that they do it right. And the evidence clearly shows that parental choice is not going to work for the kids who are most disadvantaged – the kids whose parents are often barely able to make ‘good choices’ about buying groceries instead of booze, let alone getting their children into schools which they can’t just show up to on the first day of term and be put in a class. But for the neo-liberals choice is sacrosanct. And this is the real reason they are so fond of charter schools – because they put the disciplines and freedoms of a market-place into education, and it’s this that the neo-liberal head of the hydra has its eye on, rather than any woolly concerns for the underprivileged.
So, as the hydra goes to work, watch closely for these heads turning on each other. Of course a risk is that the advocates for Maori and innovative learning will turn out to be more opportunistic than principled, and with the exposed underbelly of the public education system at its mercy, the hydra will be too busy tearing apart its prey to realise the inherent contradictions within itself.