Labour's attempts to hold a firm line on charter schools have been undermined by the party's new list candidate Willie Jackson, who has been a strong advocate for the schools and is CEO of Manukau Urban Maori Authority, which sponsors Te Kura Maori o Waatea charter school in South Auckland.
Labour's policy is to repeal the current legislation allowing private businesses and charities to apply for government funding to run charter schools (officially known as partnership schools).
Over the weekend Jackson, appearing on TVNZ's Q+A, suggested Labour might keep the schools open, effectively rebranding them and just "get rid of the name".
He later told Radio NZ the Waatea marae school was successful, and he was "not going to sacrifice anything that we do just for a seat in parliament". He said he thought "just about all" the current charter schools were doing well and he saw no reason to close any of them.
Asked by Newsroom last month about charter schools' concerns over their fate, Labour Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins' response was short and to the point: "Labour’s position on charter schools hasn’t changed. They won't continue under Labour."
But Labour leader Andrew Little had to spend the day on Tuesday explaining that a Labour government would negotiate with each of the currently existing charter schools about the basis on which they could remain open, provided they meet two bottom lines: having trained and registered teachers and teaching the national curriculum.
Appearing on Morning Report, Little was non-committal when pressed about whether the charter school Jackson was involved with would be shut, responding that "we will have schools, including special character schools, that have as their bottom line trained, registered teachers."
Speaking later to reporters in parliament, he said he couldn’t say what would happen to Jackson's school, adding: "I can say we will have adult conversations about each of the schools and what those schools will do, and it is about making sure that across the board we have an education system that meets the minimum standards and gives every child the best possible learning environment and the best possible chance of success".
"If there are schools that meet the criteria and are doing the job that every other publicly funded school is doing, then it doesn’t necessarily require shutting down," Little said.
"I don’t want you going round reporting that now suddenly Labour is going to keep open charter schools," he said.
Hipkins forwarded Newsroom Labour's latest manifesto which says "Labour will repeal legislation allowing for the establishment of charter schools that don’t have to employ qualified, registered teachers.
"Charter schools will be able to apply for integration, establish themselves as schools of special character, or become alternative education providers under the umbrella of existing state schools.
He added that closure "remains an option for schools that choose not to pursue one of the above options or do not satisfy the criteria to become one of the above."
Meanwhile, the government and ACT (which made the passing of the charter school legislation a condition of their confidence and supply agreement with the government) pounced on the conflicted positions and embarrassment for Labour. Jackson's selection prompted criticism over his past comments on the so-called Roast Busters, and the release of Labour's candidate list rankings was delayed amid reports he was unhappy about his place on the list.
“Andrew Little’s train wreck interview .. goes to the heart of Labour’s identity crisis,” said ACT Leader David Seymour.
“The Party cannot decide if it is the party of middle class teacher union representatives who want to maintain an education monopoly, or its Maori candidates who want competition and choice in line with the official position of the Iwi Leaders Forum.
“Mr Little’s objections, meanwhile, are spurious. He objects that Partnership Schools do not teach the New Zealand Curriculum. How is this different from Auckland Grammar teaching Cambridge examinations? Are alternative curricula only for the wealthy?"
Seymour said the flexibility of charter schools to employ non-registered teachers had, for example, allowed Vanguard Military School to bring in a former air force aircraft engineer to teach engineering.