Ugly battle looms for Ardern over charter schools

Students of South Auckland Middle School charter school partnership school. Photo supplied by Alwyn Poole for use on article.

Jacinda Ardern hopes a compromise will resolve a potentially nasty clash with Labour's Maori MPs and iwi leaders over the future of charter schools. Thomas Coughlan reports the two sides remain far apart.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised last week at Waitangi to listen to Maori, but her Government's first action after five days of talks with iwi leaders was to abolish schools that iwi say are helping to resolve the state's failure to educate Maori youth.

Iwi leaders and her Government's Maori MPs want to keep the schools open, but a battle is brewing that could damage Labour's relationship with Maori just at a time when it seemed to be improving. If the Government cannot mesh the schools into the state system in a way that satisfies iwi leaders, Ardern faces an internal revolt from Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis (who threatened before the election to resign if Labour forced the schools to close), along with fellow school supporters Willie Jackson (Maori Caucus co-chair) and Tamaki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare. Ardern also risks worsening tensions between Labour and iwi that go all the way back to the Foreshore and Seabed clash that led to the creation of the Maori Party.

Two days after Ardern's well-received speech about listening to Maori concerns, Education Minister Chris Hipkins fired the starting-gun on Labour's long-standing policy to abolish charter schools -- a policy called for by teacher unions.

Hipkins introduced the Education Amendment Bill that would see charter schools and National Standards made a thing of the past. Both were key planks of the previous Government's education policy.

He said that he would like the Government's contracts with the schools "terminated by mutual agreement" although he reserves the right to issue notices of "termination for convenience" that exist under the charter schools' existing contracts by the middle of May 2018, which would take effect at the end of the school year.

"Operators wanting to be involved in education can apply to me to establish another form of school, such as a designated character school. As part of this process, applications would need to meet the relevant requirements," he said.

The Government suggested that schools that wish to remain open may choose to continue as designated character schools, but issued red lines over key distinctions with state schools, meaning the soon-to-be ex-charter schools would no longer receive bulk funding, teach non-standard curricula, and enter into differential teachers' contracts.

The schools themselves are sceptical. They say that even as special character schools they won't retain enough scope to deliver their brand of special, tailored education to their students.

At Monday's post-cabinet press conference, Hipkins said that the schools had been invited to meet with the Ministry of Education next week to discuss transitional arrangements, but he would not meet them personally to ensure due legal process.

The stakes are high for the Government. Labour's Deputy Leader, Kelvin Davis, previously said he would resign if Te Kura Hourua O Whangarei and Te Kapehu Whetu, two charter schools in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate were closed down. Labour MP Willie Jackson, whose Manukau Urban Maori Authority runs charter school Te Kura Maori o Waatea, has also said that Labour would never close the school.

"They support Maori trying to do their own thing. But what they're saying is look, we can't go with a policy that perhaps could lead to widespread privatisation. We can't have big corporations coming in and running schools. That's what Andrew and Chris are saying," he said.

Davis and Jackson along with Peeni Henare have not commented on the changes but will hold a press conference on Tuesday morning to discuss their charter schools.

Red lines

The problem for the schools and the Government is their respective red lines are miles away from each other, with Labour suggesting the schools must completely adopt the state agenda or be faced with closure.

Alywn Poole, who sits on the board of the Villa Education Trust which runs two charter schools in South and West Auckland, told Newsroom that he is willing to negotiate with the Government, but he would be firm on three points: the school's ownership and governance structure, the block funding system and the school's teachers remaining outside the standard national award.

He said this could all be achieved "at the stroke of a pen" by amending the designated character school legislation.

The Government, however, has its own red lines, which include forcing the schools to dispense with block funding and accepting national wage awards for teachers.

Block funding means that each charter school receives its budget each quarter as a lump sum without the Government stipulating what it should be spent on. Charter schools have the freedom to divert funds from one area to another, depending on need.

A charter school's funding is determined by the Ministry of Education, which calculates what an equivalent state school would receive, plus a supplementary payment to cover the lease and upkeep of the school's buildings and other infrastructure, which the Government does not own, unlike in a traditional state school.

Poole argues that bulk funding allows the school to divert funding away from administration and capital costs and into teaching, something that will be impossible under the designated character schools model.

"If it goes to the current designated character model and they say here's $300,000 for property, well we couldn't spend that because we've decided to minimise our property spend to put more money into other assets. That means we'd put 30 kids in a class instead of 15, which is exactly what's not working for decile one kids," Poole said.

"It gives us the spending choices to provide uniforms, stationary, IT and not ask for donations," he said.

Jack Boyle, President of the PPTA union, disagrees and told Newsroom that the bulk funding model was flawed.

"It allows huge leeway for school managers to take large salaries, management fees and so forth, and that it means that school leaders have to trade off teachers against other school expenses," he said

The Government looks unlikely to budge on this point.

"I'd be surprised that bulk funding is demonstrating some specific educational outcomes for kids," Ardern said on Monday. "It would be surprising that that's the only thing that's making a difference from their perspective".

Boyle agrees that it is difficult to say why (or even whether) charter schools are successful.

"The evaluation that the last Government did show [was] that they were innovative in regards to their governance structures, and that the students and families that they spoke to were generally happy there, and that’s it. It was not a systematic, quantitative analysis of the educational impact, which would have compared how the same students would have achieved in public schools," he said.

Awards season

Another aspect of charter schools with a shaky future is their ability to negotiate non-standard contracts with teachers and pay them at a different rate to teachers in the state sector.

Poole says that the schools overseen by his trust pay teachers five percent on average above what they would receive in the state sector, attracting the best staff.

Paul Gaulter, National Secretary of NZEI union, disagrees - saying that he's seen no evidence that differentiated contracts have allowed charter schools to negotiate more competitive contracts.

"The thing that most worries New Zealand about charter schools is that for the first time it allows unqualified and unregistered teachers into New Zealand's compulsory education sector," he said.

Poole, however, disputes this saying that his staff are all registered and qualified and that all schools in New Zealand employ unregistered teachers to fill gaps in demand under the recently-expanded limited authority to teach provisions.

"Contractually, we would set up a minimum amount of registered and qualified teachers and the only reason that anything was in there differently for partnership and charter schools, some were more industry focused," he said.

Poole was hopeful the Government would allow his school to keep its curriculum and governance structure, which was its point of difference.

"The reason to retain our ownership and governance structure allows us to maintain our difference and our model is different. We have a split day and a project based curriculum which means our kids have core subjects but they also have other subjects they do and we only have 15 kids in a class," he said

Hamish Crooks, Trustee of the Pacific Peoples Advancement Trust, which operates the Pacific Advance Secondary School, a Pasifika-focused charter school in Auckland agrees that the key to charter schools' success is their flexibility to meet a wide range of student needs.

"There's a lot of flexibility around how to meet the needs of the children. We have all registered teachers, we follow the school curriculum, but what it does give us is the ability to look at children's specific needs, kids who aren't engaging in high schools", he said.

"State education has failed Maori for 170 years"

The Government will be concerned that it doesn't blow its post-Waitangi honeymoon with Maori as it integrates several Maori-medium schools into the state system. However, there is already severe scepticism and trepidation voiced by Maori education groups about what a return to the state system might looks like.

Toby Curtis, a member of the Iwi Chairs Forum and cultural adviser on the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board, which gave authorisation for charter schools to establish, is doubtful.

"We have a wonderful state system that seems to be wonderful at failing Maori children," Curtis told Newsroom.

"Seventy percent of the Māori children in those charter schools would have ended up on the scrapheap and would have ended up being problems for our society and ended up an incarceration statistic."

He said charter schools energised the community, getting them involved and engaging parents to participate in their child's education.

He told Newsroom about a powhiri at the Te Aratika Academy in Hastings.

"These were young boys who could have gone to prison as they got older… but I saw them and they were like a young tribe when we went to that school. They were operating at an adult level when doing their powhiri. I had to respond to them as if I was talking to kaumatua," he said.

Curtis said the he would be supportive of integration with the state system if it recognised that the schools needed a different "diet" to that of failed systems of the past, but he was sceptical.

"They won't budge, because after 170 years they're still failing Maori kids and the country is doing nothing about it."

Raewyn Tipene is the chief executive of the He Puna Marama Trust, which operates Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa and Te Kapehu Whetu in Kelvin Davis' electorate of Te Tai Tokerau. He agreed on the state system's failure.

"The previous mainstream model has largely failed Maori kids. We've got no desire to return to that model. We have two kura that have really successful outcomes for the kids who do attend our kura," she said.

She said that the Trust was keen to look at options with the Ministry, which will meet the trust on the February 23.

Curtis himself believed that the only hope now was to change the state system to allow greater agency for kaupapa Maori education.

"We've got to change the state system and the only way that can be changed is that the Government and Pakeha society has to listen," Curtis said.

The Prime Minister, who made much of listening to the concerns of Maori during her five day stay at Waitangi, said Maori schooling would find a place within the state system.

"We need to make sure that we work more closely with those that have a proposal for a school that might be a special character school to ease the path to meet the needs of their local community," she said.

"All we are asking is that when they do that, they operate under the same rules that state sector schools do."