Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Were we too quick to dismiss John Banks?

The announcement that National will trial charter schools in low-income areas as part of its coalition agreement with ACT suggests that John Key’s government will be a lot more adventurous in its second term than in its first.

It’s an extremely significant policy gain for ACT and runs counter to the suspicion expressed by many commentators (me included) that John Banks is a political impostor; a National MP in disguise. Charter schools and parental choice in education have been core ACT policy from the start but until now, have never looked like gaining mainstream traction.

It rather looks as if National is using its tiny ally in Parliament to advance policies that it knows will resonate with National supporters – and no doubt with many of its MPs too – but which it hasn’t had the nerve to embrace itself. Radio New Zealand political editor Brent Edwards also pointed out this morning that it’s in National’s interests to help ACT rebuild so that it continues to have a dependable partner on its right. Allowing ACT a few important policy gains – and several ministerial positions – would be consistent with that strategy.

That John Key went on Morning Report this morning to defend the coalition deal with ACT – and took a pot shot at the “vested interests” of the teacher unions that oppose charter schools – is another indication that National has experienced a testosterone surge as a result of its election triumph. In the past Key has only rarely been interviewed on Radio New Zealand, leading to accusations that he wasn’t up to aggressive questioning.

We should all now brace ourselves for a furious co-ordinated offensive from the teacher unions, which have been remarkably successful in bullying governments in the past and will see the introduction of charter schools - even if only on a very limited scale - as a threat to their iron grip on the education system. To the teacher unions, parental choice is a seriously subversive concept. Inevitably, they will seek to forcefully remind the government just who the system exists for: the teachers.

The big question then will be whether the government stands up to the unions or shamefully capitulates, as National did over bulk funding in the 1990s. To its credit, the Key government stood its ground over national standards in the face of an almost hysterical outcry - the first setback for the teacher unions for as long as most people can remember. I hope it demonstrates the same resolve over charter schools.

It is, after all, just a trial, although we can rely on the NZEI, the PPTA and the school principals' organisations to portray it as tantamount to the sacking of our schools by Barbarian hordes.


Deborah Coddington said...

To the teacher unions, this is the end of civilisation as we know it. In 2003, Trevor Mallard closed down a record 96 state schools. Imagine if 96 private schools had gone bankrupt? There would have been total pandemonium from the unions about failure etc etc. Not a squeak in 2003 and I know, because I set up a website, SaveourSchools, campaigned throughout the country, and organised a march on Parliament until Mallard backed down and called a moratorium. Maybe some of these Charter Schools are great, maybe some aren't, that's not the point. The point is parents should have choice. The state should not dictate to parents where they should send their children to school. At the moment, unless you have the money to afford private schooling, or rental in a school zone, you have no choice. Kura Kaupapa and Kohanga Reo started out on very much the same principle as charter schools. Was there an outcry by the education unions? Of course not.

Every day hundreds of under-fives go to early childhood centres under a kind of voucher system in NZ. Do you hear the unions jumping up and down? Same with tertiary education. So why, in the 5 to 16-year-old age group, is it impossible for people to run their own lives?

Buggered if I know.

The probligo said...

I remain unconvinced about the charter schools/voucher education/bulk funding debate. I think that the biggest mistake made in presenting it as a policy in the past was the premise of “choice”. As the product of small rural communities, where there was only one school unless you bus-ed out of town, I could just imagine a government rushing to duplicate all of the schools of small town NZ so that a “choice” could be provided. As a result, the ideas were, and to a great degree still are, consigned to the bin that says “getting in the vote in the big smokes”. As a principle, the idea does nothing for education, and even less for the educated.

What this election has shown is just why the Nats need a right wing support.

Before anything else, the jonkey does not have the intestinal fortitude for policy risks that may jeopardise the centre-right electorate. The presence of a right wing allows for the occasional initiative to the right of the central base, sweetened by the prospect of Maori Party helping with the occasional move on the left. In theory that means goals around both posts. It has to be said that it is clever politics.

It also explains exactly why the potential demise of ACT was of such critical importance to the Nats.

What will be interesting during the next three years will be just what traction Colin Craig’s Conservatives can get as a potential replacement for ACT. If support for them on election night – surely the second biggest surprise after the resurrection of Winnie the Pooh’s resurrection – is maintained I can see the ACT influence being supplanted and fairly direct support being provided to the Conservatives in Rodney and North Shore.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you, Deborah, for making some important points - and particularly for recalling the mayhem created when Trevor Mallard, in a Pol Pot Year Zero moment, decided to shut down dozens of schools on the basis of seriously flawed roll projections. Those closures caused enormous stress and disruption, and for what? A Wairarapa teacher wrote her PhD thesis on the closures last year and concluded there was no clear evidence that the benefits outweighed the costs. The process was incompetently managed, ripped the hearts out of many communities and left towns and rural districts with derelict school sites that remain an eyesore and a magnet for vandals and arsonists. Yet I don't recall the NZEI marching in the streets. (Mallard, of course, as a former teachers' union official himself, could get away with atrocities that would have caused outrage had a National government attempted them.)

Probligo: For what it's worth, I think your analysis of the politics behind the charter schools trial is probably right on the money. But it's only that: a trial. Let's see how it works before succumbing to union prophecies of doom, which after all are no more than good old-fashioned turf protection.

The probligo said...


Perhaps that is where our outlooks differ.

In my mind education is far too important to be subject to "trials" of any sort, most particularly when the proposal being trialled is subject to some misgivings in its place of origin.

As I recall, both BoT's and NCEA started as "trials". One is a success in my mind, the other is still struggling. Another trial, that of universal standards, is heading in the direction indicated by the doom-sayers.

In the case of "chartered schools" I can still not see past the previous attempts by GNat governments to try and make money out of public education - something that should never happen.

Richard McGrath said...

@The Probligo:

So you don't consider the system of State schooling, with the herding of often unwilling inmates into classrooms with 30+ pupils to one teacher, a "trial"?