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.