Posts Tagged ‘charter schools’

The hazards of MMP

datePosted on 10:14, June 5th, 2014 by Lew

David Cunliffe’s apparently-rash pledge to scrap the coat-tail rule that permits a party with less than 5% of the party vote to bring in additional MPs as long as it wins an electorate within 100 days turns out to not be quite so bold: it looks as if they simply intend to introduce Iain Lees-Galloway’s member’s bill — currently before Parliament — enacting (most of) the recommendations of the Electoral Commission as government legislation. That isn’t bad. It initially seemed as if he intended to ram through just this one cherry-picked rule under urgency, and some of us overreacted to it. There are still problems with the plan, but they are more complex.

Anyway, the episode throws light upon a lot of the tradeoffs and subtleties inherent in MMP — the major one of which is whether proportionality or equity in the distribution of proportionality is more crucial.

What MMP is good for
MMP is a rather ugly, instrumental system for balancing the expressed wishes of fickle and often arbitrary voters with regard to an volatile and rather shallow pool of political talent against the need for stability. It is not a means by which to determine moral merit, as trial-by-political-combat FPP claims to be, and nor is it a route to the mutually-least-bad choice, as in STV and related systems. It is what it is.

What it is not is an elegant expression of noble political aims. I guess this is why traditionalists dislike it viscerally: it feels kinda shabby, but it works.

“Rorts” and electorate-level match-fixing
So with that last point in mind, Danyl has said it best: the game is the game. Its job is not to look nice, it’s to deliver representative parliaments. I don’t much like it, but the utility of the kind of strategy in play in Epsom is obvious, so fair enough — as I said before the 2011 election, “If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.”

Two things to add. The first is that the electorate clearly isn’t inclined to punish the ACT and UnitedFuture parties, at least not locally, because in the solitude of a cardboard booth, orange marker in hand, self-interest tends to overcome ethical compunctions. But the appeal to such compunctions is still the only way to reduce the viability of the “rorts”, so it is natural that those opposed will try to jawbone those compunctions. Patrick Gower is leading the charge here — although he, too, has been consistent in his derangement about this topic since before the 2011 election.

Second, the agreement between the Internet and Mana parties where Hone Harawira’s seat in Te Tai Tokerau will, they hope, bring in Internet party votes and list MPs is emphatically not of the same type as Epsom and Ōhariu, where major parties throw the electorate to exploit the coat-tail rule. Nobody is throwing anything in Te Tai Tokerau — in fact, it seems likely to be one of the most strongly-contested electorates in the country, a fact which is causing conniptions in some quarters. While the electoral outcome will look similar to the undiscerning eye, the Internet MANA deal is different — smaller parties allying to overcome structural barriers to their participation in democracy. Not only is it not only not a rort, it is perfectly just and rational behaviour in the face of an iniquitous system.

Consensus and timing of law changes
In general there should be consensus in changes to electoral law. But I agree with Rob Salmond that “should” is not the same as “must” — the object is to be sure that changes will be generally popular, and will be durable, and in this case an independent commission and the deep consultation that occurred during and after the referendum strongly suggests that implementing the recommendations via the Lees-Galloway bill will be both those things.

But timing matters: now that Internet MANA has declared its hand and chosen to take advantage of the coat-tail rule in a similar way as ACT and UnitedFuture, it would be unjust to change the rule immediately before the election. Depending on how things play, it might still be unjust to change the rule without further consultation after the election, because it may be that people see in the Internet MANA a new way to challenge the entrenched parties (I plan on writing more about this if I get time). For this reason it is good that John Key has ruled out supporting the Lees-Galloway bill.

Proportionality versus equity
All that having been said, I favour scrapping the coat-tail rule. Even though, as Graeme Edgeler has explained, it increases proportionality rather than decreasing it, mitigating the effect of the 5% threshold that kept New Zealand First, with 4.07% of the party vote, out of Parliament in 2008. The trouble is that it increases proportionality selectively rather than equitably — that is, among minor parties who are willing and able to become the vassals of larger parties — as Gower said in 2011 “It’s finally official: John Key owns the ACT Party.” Proportionality in an instrumental system is not an intrinsic good that automatically trumps other considerations. Process does matter. But outcomes matter too.

Political clientism in an instrumental system is not so much morally or ethically wrong as it tends to degrade representativeness, and delivers huge benefits to the strongest parties — who have the ability to burn political capital to take advantage of these sorts of relationships — in ways other parties cannot. So while you get the appearance of more diverse representation, the effect is more that the liege party gets to offload political risk and responsibility to its vassals. The clearest case of the present government is the charter school policy that, had National passed it of its own volition, would have endangered Key’s moderate reputation. ACT’s presence in parliament — even without deputy leader Catherine Isaac, who was outrageously granted the sinecure implementing the charter schools plan — gave the government cover to implement policy they wanted, but which was too politically risky.

Self-interest dressed as principle
So to an extent the proposal from Labour is sour-grapery from a political middle power that is neither big enough to be able to benefit from the coat-tail rule, nor small enough to potentially need it. For all their posturing about the integrity of the system, I am sure they would use it if they could get away with it (as they did in Coromandel in 1999), but they can’t. They have no potential clients, so they have no need for the coat-tail rule. The Greens, secure above the threshold, don’t need them for this, and they (correctly, in my view) regard Internet MANA as too radical for such a relationship. The retreat to electorate nostalgia is also strategic positioning from a party that has seen the resentment that exists towards list MPs, and has pledged to re-take the provinces and rebuild its electorate network.

National’s refusal to implement the findings of the commission also come clearly down to self-interest. They are so far the major beneficiaries of the coat-tail provisions, having used their two vassal parties to good effect through both terms of their government.

Ultimately while both the major parties’ positions are self-interested, Labour comes closest to the right conclusion: that the iniquity of the coat-tail rule’s additional proportionality is a greater cost than the additional representation gained by it is worth. The best cure for the problem is to cut the party vote threshold — to 1/120th of the party vote, or a “full seat”, which would obviate the coat-tail rule. Scrapping the coat-tail rule is a rather distant second-best outcome, but doing that as well as cutting the threshold to 4% as recommended by the commission seems like the sort of compromise with which nobody will be totally happy, but which will endure.

Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.


A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

datePosted on 12:25, September 19th, 2012 by Lew

Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).

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They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.

The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):

You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.

On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.

Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.

Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.

This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.

This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.

There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.

Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.


* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.