Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

What Price Liberty?: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

What Price Liberty?: Feature

Article excerpt

Charter schools in the US, academies in the UK and partnership schools in New Zealand are all attracting controversy. While the freedom they bring is appealing, the potential pitfalls are not. Laura McInerney reports.

My colleague sat, head in hands, despairing. For nearly a decade her daughter has eaten breakfast every morning with her father. He cooks, they eat together, chat about their day, then go their separate ways having spent some quality time together. Then the school letter arrived: "From September, all students will receive a free nutritious breakfast. Students must now be on site from 7.50am to ensure a prompt start." This was not a choice. The letter stated that there could be no exceptions.

Under these circumstances, a parent might normally march into the school to petition the change and, if nobody listened, take it up with a local school authority. But this parent is in the US and she sends her child to a charter school, a state-funded school operating outside the remit of the local school board. Once the school said no, she tells me, there was no further complaint procedure. She could either put up with the situation or leave. Unable to face the trauma of removing her daughter from the school, she capitulated. From September, father-daughter breakfasts are cancelled.

My colleague is not alone. Since 1993, 42 US states have passed laws that allow state-funded schools to operate independently of local government control. Charter schools now account for almost 6 per cent of all US schools. Sweden and the Canadian province of Alberta have also instituted similar systems. More recently, England has allowed new or existing schools to be operated as academies by independent not-for-profit companies. In the coming months, New Zealand is also expected to follow suit. But what is proving so seductive that countries are falling over themselves to do such a thing?

Few people know that charter schools were originally advocated by US teaching unions. Annoyed by government interference in the operation of schools, Albert Shanker, a union leader, wanted a system where schools could get on with the hard business of teaching untouched by politicians.

In Shanker's version of the policy, which he first proposed in the late 1980s, schools would be provided with a "charter" saying what outcomes they should achieve for each child and, as long as those outcomes were met, the local government would have no power to challenge the school's methods. Teachers the world over like this idea very much.

But by the time the first US charter schools were introduced in 1993, the concept had changed considerably. Instead of teachers running schools, for-profit or philanthropic companies were now allowed (and often preferred) to manage them.

Outcomes mentioned in the charters tended to focus on arbitrary multiple- choice test scores instead of holistic learning measures. And, in a bizarre rejection of the policy's originator, several states used the legislation to enforce "no union" clauses forbidding collective bargaining. From that point on, Shanker rejected the scheme as a way of "marketising" education and a fight has been on about its worth ever since.

Two decades on and controversy still reigns. Some charter school companies have achieved positive renown - for example, the Knowledge is Power Program (Kipp). Others have faltered. The Imagine chain was forced to close all its Missouri schools in 2012, leaving about 4,000 students without school places. The state's commissioner of education Chris Nicastro claimed it "would be a disservice" to children to keep the schools open because of academic and financial issues. …

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