No one could accuse the PPTA of not sticking to its guns. Since the words ‘charter schools’ were barely whispered in National-ACT circles over three years ago, the union has been unwavering in its opposition.

Now as the first charter schools, partnership schools, kura hourua – whatever you want to call them – open their doors this year, the PPTA’s resistance has only increased.

The new schools in Northland, in particular, have become battlefields as the union drives a ban in interaction between PPTA members and charter schools.

One of these schools, Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, a Māori boys’ secondary school, was opened with the expectation that students could take specialist subjects like art, economics or trade studies at Whangarei Boys’ High School and NorthTec.

However, owing to the PPTA’s ban on interaction between PPTA members and charter schools, it will no longer be an option for the students of Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa to take classes at Whangarei Boys’ High. The school’s board of trustees has decided to decline a request from the new partnership school for a supply agreement by way of a Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate kura-enrolled students attending specific courses at the high school.

Bullying schools for political gain?

There have been murmurings that the PPTA has been pressuring schools in its attempt to achieve in influence politics.

However, at the suggestion that the union was “dictating to its members”, the PPTA slammed the notion, stating that it was a democratic association, with 90 per cent of secondary teachers choosing to join. The policy of bans was agreed on at the union’s national conference, where 150 teachers representing their regions, including Northland, decide significant policy.

Even so, there have been indications of teachers and principals feeling pressured by the union.

“The principals [in Whangarei] are rattled. They are being stood over by the PPTA and they have no room to move,” Raewyn Tipene, chief executive of the trust establishing the school, told Northern Advocate.

Indeed, all Education Review’s queries to the principal of Whangarei Boys’ were swiftly diverted to the board of trustees owing to the “highly inflammable nature of the partnership school situation”. Board chairman Tim Robinson says the board is “deeply disappointed that it was caught up in an ideological and political debate”.

Robinson says the school’s decision not to enter into any agreement with Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa was largely influenced by the publicly stated intention by the PPTA to legally challenge the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding and to instigate action by their staff members.

The disruption promised by the PPTA appears to have been enough for the school to make the decision to shut its doors to the new partnership school.

“The board felt that the potential disruption to 1195 students, just to accommodate 4-6 students from the kura could not be justified … our first responsibility as a board is to ensure great outcomes for our students. To jeopardise that outcome at this time of the year is not good governance,” says Robinson.

What about the students?

The overriding feeling from those opposed to the PPTA’s ban is one of incredulity that the PPTA is prepared to pursue a political battle at the expense of the students at its heart.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says she’s very disappointed at the approach as the charter schools are designed to help children who aren’t successful in the education system.

“I would have thought that it was in the interest of the entire profession that we work to ensure our kids can be successful,” she said.

“The PPTA purports to care about kids; their bullying only hurts kids and they are using kids in a political fight,” states blogger Cameron Slater.

Indeed, the origins of Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei indicate a strong desire to see students succeed. Tipene points out that in 2007, 81 per cent of Māori boys in Whangarei failed to achieve NCEA level 1. This drove the trust to establish the Leadership Academy for Māori boys in 2009 and the operation of the kura hourua was a natural extension of this.

The union’s stance

However, the PPTA see it all very differently.

“It is quite impressive the way the charter schools have managed to spin this as though they are victims,” says PPTA president, Angela Roberts.

“These charter school operators are being funded (very generously) to offer a full curriculum – if they are not, then the question needs to be directed back at them. They have been given public money to provide education to students – if they find themselves unable to do that, they must give the money back, not exploit the good will of local public schools.

“There is no disadvantage to charter school students because the option is always open to them to enrol at the public school and receive the teaching directly. One of the main rationales for charter schools is that students are being ‘failed’ by mainstream schools. The applications of the two Northland schools are very clear on this. We can’t see how this is consistent with them turning around and asking the mainstream schools to teach their students.”

Roberts likens the situation to the health sector, whereby private hospitals have been known to deliver patients to public hospital because medical treatment is too expensive or complex to deliver.

“In both cases, we have profit-making organisations (likely to be paying their employees – especially their CEOs – far in excess of what is paid in the public sector) trying to freeload off the already over-burdened public schools and hospitals.”

Blurriness around cost arguments

However, to suggest that partnership schools are ‘trying to freeload’ isn’t quite accurate.

The union’s main rationale for taking action is because it says charter schools are receiving substantially more money per student than other schools in the region, which is why it is unfair to expect the local public schools to take on teaching of specialist subjects.

However, Drew Peddy, project manager for Partnership Schools Kura Hourua says that the extra costs associated with teaching the partnership school students would be met by the partnership school.

“The expectation has always been that the partnership school would pay the state school for teaching of any subject matter, the same as if they engaged a private training establishment to deliver courses to their students”.

It could be argued that if a state school was happy to teach a few extra students from a partnership school (and ‘few’ is correct: Tipene confirmed that just two kura students would be missing out from the Whangarei Boys’ snub) and receive payment to cover the costs of doing so, then both could work in agreement without any political angst, and neither state nor partnership school students would be caught up in this mess.

It could be argued that if you took the PPTA out of this equation, the situation in Northland could have played out so differently; amicably, even. As it is, Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa has confirmed that other partners including NorthTec are happy to work with them.

Then there is the issue of funding comparisons, a murky topic indeed. The PPTA’s claim, shared by Labour and Green parties, that charter schools are funded significantly more than state schools, could be on shaky ground. Education Minister Hekia Parata says funding comparisons are often misrepresented as they should be calculated on a per student rate projected over their possible 18-year contract on partnership schools, not on their opening rolls. Given the difficulty of projecting school rolls, this argument is not rock-solid either.

Numbers game

There has been speculation that the PPTA is pursuing this line of attack on charter schools because of a fear that they would lose members. The union has denied this, saying that if this was a real concern, they would look to recruit membership from charter schools, but they are not prepared to do this. More accurately the union fears a loss of teacher jobs would serve to narrow the curriculum and limit the options for students.

“As school rolls fall, [they] will receive less funding and staffing and so be unable to provide a full range of curriculum, pastoral, and extra-curricular options for their students,” says Roberts.

Teacher job loss is a reality, especially as partnership schools are tipped to be offering teachers much better salaries than state schools. Rangitoto College reportedly lost five teachers to nearby Vanguard Military School, which was paying about $16,000 more than Rangitoto could offer, according to the Herald. However, the challenges of a new school are thought to be more enticing to teachers than more money.

Battle only just beginning

By now we are well versed in the arguments for and against partnership schools. The idea of offering a choice for students, for whom the current school system is not working, has been the cornerstone of the case for partnership schools. Meanwhile, the PPTA argues that New Zealand’s school system already allows for a lot of choice and variety, and that choice between schools as a driver for improving school systems doesn’t work.

A difference in opinion is certainly to be expected – especially between the Ministry and the PPTA – but now that partnership schools legislation has been passed and the schools are opening, some thought the PPTA might cease their attack on partnership schools, and at least tolerate, if not accommodate, them.

At blogger David Farrar’s insinuation that the union’s boycotts are “reminiscent of the apartheid era”, a PPTA member responded, “Indeed, and they contributed to changing an invidious system. Political change is brought about in many different ways; for unions, denying our labour is one of the ultimate and strongest tools to bring about change that we have. We don’t use it lightly.”

Indeed, the PPTA shows no signs of yielding. If charter schools are to remain in New Zealand – which, in the event of National being re-elected, is likely – Roberts says they will continue to fight against them. There appear to be no circumstances in which the PPTA would consider easing its stance and working alongside charter schools.

“If anything, PPTA members’ attitudes … are hardening towards charter schools as the evidence of over-generous funding is revealed and the international evidence continues to confirm the harm they do to local schools. It’s almost certain the next round of tenders will bring in the American chains lured by the prospect of profits made out of New Zealand students and the New Zealand taxpayer,” says Roberts.

It would appear the real battle is only just beginning.


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