Sunday’s “Save our charter schools march” was a moving experience. It wasn’t just the hundreds of people who turned up in torrential rain to protest. Nor was it ACT leader David Seymour’s impassioned chanting. Nor even the Vanguard school students’ valiant haka.
What was moving was the procession of young students, mostly Māori and Pasifika, who strode forward, proudly, to the microphone. If their eagerness to speak caught the protest organisers by surprise, their words did not. They had only one message: a plea to the prime minister and Minister of Education Chris Hipkins not to close their schools.
One student explained that she had been failing at her state school and that she had nothing to live for after her friend had committed suicide. Another described the self-destructive path he had been following at his old school.
Charter schools are not private schools taking the children of the wealthiest families in society. They are schools that tend to attract those who have been failing in the state system and come from some of the poorest communities.
But if their pride in their schools came through, so did their sense of bewilderment. And of betrayal. As one grandmother said, she thought the new Government wanted to put children first. How could it be in the interests of children for the Government to close their schools – schools that were helping them succeed where their old schools had failed?
Why indeed? They could simply decide not to set up any further charter schools, as they don’t like them. But their decision to terminate all existing charter schools shows a callous indifference to the pupils and their families.
Against this backdrop, it is not obvious why the new education minister is so determined to put an end to New Zealand’s charter schools model and, to quote his January cabinet paper, “close these charter schools in their current form”.
And to do so without having even visited one of them.
Could the answer lie in misplaced loyalties? Teachers at charter schools are not required to be registered and the schools are bulk funded. These arrangements permit the schools to hire teachers on different contracts to those in regular state schools, to pay teachers more (or less), and to hire specialist teachers from outside the regulated profession.
Each of these freedoms is a threat to the teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining powers. As a consequence, the teachers’ unions have been vocal opponents of the charter schools policy. No one can blame them for that. That is their job.
But our state education system does not exist for the benefit of teachers – or their unions – any more than the legal system exists for the benefit of the Law Society, or the health system for doctors.
Instead, our education system exists to serves its students – our children. And their futures depend upon the system being flexible and innovative enough to accommodate their needs.
This strikes at the heart of it. Labour has a choice between the interests of the students at those schools and the interests of the unions.
After all, they are the same children his prime minister has promised to lift out of poverty. Helping them achieve educational success must surely be the best place to start.
Labour would rather pay people more to be on welfare than keep open schools that might help them from going on welfare in the first place.