Charter Schools and union busting

The New Zealand government is pressing ahead with its intention to introduce charter schools, and has recently announced the names of the first educational entrepreneurs who will run charter schools next year. The name ‘charter schools’ refers to schools which are fully funded by the state, but run as private businesses. They have been touted by the Minister of Education as a solution for students who are underachieving in the existing state-run school system.

These schools will not be not bound by the national curriculum, nor by various other conditions imposed on ordinary state schools, such as the requirement that all teachers be fully qualified and registered. Since they are private businesses, they will not be subject to the same public scrutiny as the ordinary state schools.

The unions of both primary and secondary teachers are strongly opposed to charter schools.  Last year I attended a public meeting in Otahuhu, Auckland, organised to debate the introduction of charter schools. It was attended by several hundred people, including parents and others in the local community, and a large contingent of teachers. The vast majority of those attending were opposed to charter schools.

Several speakers from the floor expressed the opinion that both the name ‘charter schools’ and the idea of business-run schools had been copied from the United States and the United Kingdom. They pointed to studies showing that there were no educational benefits where such schools had been introduced in the US. Some pointed to comparative studies showing New Zealand’s education system ranking fairly well against the other developed countries, and argued ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Others pointed out that the existing education system in New Zealand already offered schools almost all of the freedoms promised by charter schools, such as the ability to organise special-character schools with specialist curricula and so on.

There is some truth in these assertions. However, if they are true, that just begs the question of why the government is so determined to force their introduction in the face of widespread public opposition.

The answer is: union-busting. There is one freedom that schools within the present state system do not have, and which the promoters of charter schools crave:  the freedom to set teachers’ salaries on an individual or school-wide basis. Previous governments have tried and failed to introduce this. For the time being, the salaries and working hours of all teachers in the state system are still determined by either the primary or secondary teachers’ contract.

It is against this unity that charter schools are aimed. The promoters of charter schools want a free market in teachers’ labour, with teachers competing and undercutting each other, accepting lower wages and longer hours in order to obtain employment. Charter schools will be entitled to set their own pay rates and hours and days of operation. It is on the basis of defending the unified teachers pay scale that they should be opposed.

Trying to rally opposition to charter schools by defending the present education system as the best possible one, as the teachers’ unions are doing now, is a line of argument that is bound to end in defeat.

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