Charter schools: an old, flawed idea and wrong for Australia

By David Zyngier

A new report proposes Australia adopt a US styled charter school, or UK type academies, approach as a solution to our falling scores on international tests. It even suggests Australia should consider for-profit schools. The report comes from the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative pro-business pro-privatisation think tank.

US charter schools and UK academies are privately run public schools. They are schools that are 100% publicly funded but are run independently like private schools. For-profit schools are exactly that, they are run as a business to make money.

It would be incredible for Australian education authorities to seriously consider adopting policies developed in education systems that are more lowly ranked than Australia as a solution to falling scores. The USA is ranked 34 and the UK 23 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rankings in mathematics while Australia outperforms them both at number 19. Australia also beats them at 16th in science and 14th in reading.

Privately run public schools in the US (charter schools) and in England (academies) are not performing better than equivalent public schools in those countries. In fact research suggests the opposite. A national study in 2009 of charter schools in the US by a pro-charter school body CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) suggests that less than one hundredth of one per cent (<0.01 per cent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrolment. The actual finding from the study is that of the charter schools researched, 17% had better results than the comparison public schools, while a whopping 37% had worse results.

Follow up independent research in 2013 concluded that the test-scores of US charter and public schools are almost identical.

Research from Stanford University also found charter schools in the US generally perform no better, and in many cases substantially worse, than traditional public schools in reading and mathematics.

There is also an issue with these schools attracting students, getting governments to pay for their start up and then, for various reasons, closing down.  Over 300 Charter schools have closed in Florida. Across the US the closure rate is about 8%. Millions of taxpayer funding has been wasted and thousands of children have had their education disrupted.

If we are serious about improving our education performance we should not be copying what is happening in the US and UK. We should be implementing, in full, the recommendations of our own Gonski Review. These are recommendations to reform the way Australian schools are funded, tailored to meet the unique needs of Australian children. It is an Australian solution for Australian schools.

Funding is at the core of the problems we are having here. The line between public and private schools has become blurred. It is estimated that by 2017 many, if not most, Catholic schools in Australia will be in receipt of MORE public money than public schools. As it now stands the Catholic Church contributes only three per cent of recurrent costs of its 1700 schools while almost 80% comes from public subsidies and 20% from parent fees. Many of the so-called low fee religious schools, which are mushrooming in our cities growth corridors, are up to 90% publicly funding. This is money mostly handed out on a per capita basis, not accounting for the needs of the student or school.

As for for-profit schools, one of the authors of the CIS report suggests that for-profit schooling:

“has offered benefits to children in the developing world, where for-profit schools are a way to enhance equity in educational provision. ‘Budget’ or ‘low-fee’ private schools, many of which are run like a small business by a sole proprietor, proliferate in some of the poorest parts of the world. Local governments are often unaware of their existence, which is in many cases key to maintaining these low fees – which could not be sustained if they had to comply with all the regulations and standards mandated by governments.”

And that is the crux of the issue. Unregulated schools can exploit staff, who would be largely unprotected because of their inability to join a union. There would be a lack of accountability that could lead to inadequate facilities, large class sizes and so on. We need to learn the lesson from what has happened in 7-Eleven stores in Australia.

The CIS report incredibly states:

“Studies comparing for-profit schools to non-profit charter schools have mixed results, ranging from no difference to a small positive effect of for-profit status”.

Given this caveat why would Australia contemplate adding for-profit schools to the mix?

Currently our governments, at both state and federal levels, do not permit for-profit schools to operate in Australia.

The Australian Education Union’s Victorian president, Meredith Peace, joined the debate by saying the government should be focusing on supporting under-resourced schools rather than boosting competition in the system. She said:

“In Victoria in recent years, schools have become increasingly isolated and are forced to compete more and more with each other with limited funding. This is producing a wider equity gap and a wider gap for our kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The Australian Education Union’s federal president, Correna Haythorpe said the Minister Christopher Pyne’s Independent Public Schools (IPS) scheme, which is very similar to the charter school/academy concept, had been rejected by most states and territories because “they recognise there is no evidence” that introducing a two-tier public school system will lead to better results for students. She also said:

“NSW, Victoria, SA, Tasmania and the ACT have all accepted money from the IPS fund but will not create a single Independent Public School. These States should be commended for standing firm and rejecting a policy that has no evidence to back it.”

NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, promised (in June 2013) NSW will not be introducing charter schools or independent public schools because there is no evidence that they improve student performance.

Such statements encourage those of us who oppose following the US and UK down the charter school track.

The CIS proposals have been roundly rejected by education experts, parent groups and detailed fact checking here in Australia. As recently as September 1st the claims made by CIS’s research are refuted by expert analysis by the National Education Policy Center in the US, which disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

The overwhelming research evidence from the US, the home of charter schools, does not support any claims that charter schools are a solution to Australia’s education problems.

A few days ago the Supreme Court in Washington State in the US ruled charter schools unconstitutional.

It seems the Centre for Independent Studies is once again flogging old ideas about education that elsewhere in the world have been considered, tried and dumped.


David-Zyngier-263x300 copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

8 thoughts on “Charter schools: an old, flawed idea and wrong for Australia

  1. Feel free to add your comments. I will endeavour to respond to each online.

  2. Garth says:

    Dear David –

    Thank you for your excellent piece. Very thought-provoking.

    As a small critique – just so you are aware not all US charter schools are 100% government funded. On the east cost of the states it’s .75 cents on the dollar with the loophole allowing charters to accept private donations.



  3. Garth many thanks for the clarification – very interesting point you raise.

  4. Trisha Jha and Jennifer Buckingham says:

    We would like to respond to Dr Zyngier’s analysis.
    1. The CIS report did not propose charter schools ‘as a solution to our falling scores on international tests’.
    It presents statistics showing that numbers of children in the lowest achievement bands in international tests have not improved in the last decade and that disadvantaged students are over-represented among the lowest achieving students. It suggests that the success of charter schools in improving educational outcomes among disadvantaged students might offer lessons for policy in Australia.
    2. The 2013 CREDO study Dr Zyngier mentions is discussed at length in the report, along with more than a dozen other studies. It includes only published studies with rigorous methodologies in the review. It therefore does not include blogs or newspaper reports, either positive or negative.
    The research findings are more complex than described by Dr Zyngier. The report states that average charter school effects across the whole of the US are small (but positive) but there is also evidence that some charter schools are outstanding and that some students benefit significantly. The report contends that these successful charter school models offer lessons for Australian policy makers.
    We encourage people to read the full literature review in the report.
    3. Dr Zyngier cites the case of charter school closures in Florida. It is very unfortunate when large numbers of charter schools are forced to close. This is why the report strongly and repeatedly argues that the contractual and policy settings must be carefully developed. However, we would contend that it is preferable for a failing school to be closed than to continue to provide poor quality education for many years and successive cohorts of children, as sometimes happens in traditional public schools.
    4. We do not condone exploitation of teachers in for-profit schools in the developing world. However Dr Zyngier provides no evidence to support his speculation that ‘Unregulated schools can exploit staff, who would be largely unprotected because of their inability to join a union. There would be a lack of accountability that could lead to inadequate facilities, large class sizes and so on’ is a problem in developing countries or would be an issue in Australia.
    5. The report describes the findings on for-profit schools in developed countries honestly: no difference to a small positive effect. The report’s contention is that without evidence of a negative effect of for-profit status, there is insufficient reason to prohibit for-profit schools, as long as they are schools of choice and not a monopoly provider in any area.
    6. Dr Zyngier is incorrect to state that state and territory governments do not permit for-profit schools to operate in Australia. For-profit schools are legal everywhere except Victoria, where they have only been prohibited since 2006. However, they are not eligible for government funding. The relevant education acts and policies are provided in the report (page 31).
    7. Referencing research on Independent Public Schools as a ‘fact check’ on charter schools is misleading. As we explain in our report, they differ in important ways.
    8. The education expert referenced as roundly rejecting our proposals – Dean Ashenden – wrote a careful critical appraisal that acknowledged some of the strengths of the report, but expressed reservations about how charter schools might work in the Australian context.
    He says: “First, charters might take over failing schools in which disadvantaged students are concentrated, and succeed where other approaches have not. And perhaps they would. A closer look at these so-called “conversion” charters is needed.” .
    And this: “There is a case for what might be called deregulation of Australian schools, particularly to permit better ways of staffing and organising educational work, as the charter idea suggests.”
    In short, as with the research on charter schools, closer reading provides a more nuanced and accurate assessment.
    9. The Washington State ruling on charter schools was a political challenge around public funding, and was not based on charter school quality. It is not relevant in the Australian legislative context.
    10. We welcome reasoned and informed debate, but we encourage people to read and consider the report in its entirety.

  5. David Zyngier says:

    Trisha and Jennifer, many thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog which as you will recognise is NOT a research report funded by a well resourced centre like your CIS but a hasty response to your report.

    Given that caveat I have endeavoured to provide readers a variety of research evidence in relation to charter schools without any pretentious that this is inclusive or the final word.

    In relation to whether for profit schools are legal or not I was being informed by the AFR piece by David Leyonhjelm ( I thought he would know his stuff on this)

    Currently, state governments do not permit for-profit schools, either explicitly or by denying them funding. Moreover, federal funding of for-profit schools is expressly prohibited.

    On reflection I recall a for profit school actually forcibly closed in June by VQRA Melbourne Senior Secondary College. So I am open for clarification about this.

    What we know so far from Charter schools and its ilk around the world in countries that you reference is that conditions of employment are up to the employer not influenced by any industrial agreements.

  6. Des Griffin says:

    The report by the CIS is a truly astounding document. First, as David Zyngier points out, the evidence, and it is substantial indeed, shows charter schools to add nothing to the educational attainment of its pupils. Not only has Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious educational researchers in the US, shown that but so have hosts of other studies.

    Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools has over the years brought together scores of studies from the US which show Charter Schools to fail to improve educational attainment. The OECD in its PISA reports have rejected independent schools as able to demonstrate superior performance.

    The US fails mainly because of a refusal to consider the evidence about funding and inequality as the OECD pointed out in 2009! Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg and others have pointed out the same flaws. Why is time and space wasted on reports that completely ignore evidence?

    The authors of the report mention the US, New Zealand, Sweden, Chile and the UK as countries where charters or similar have been established. The US has consistently performed less well than Australia, Sweden introduced independent schools whereupon achievement levels declined. And severe problems of inequality have plagued New Zealand, a country where these issues have been thoroughly studied and rejected over the last 25 years.

    More than that the features mentioned by the CIS authors as typifying the charter system are mostly irrelevant. What is relevant to school education reform are strong educational leadership, well qualified teachers respected by the community and encouraged to cooperate, good relations with the community, a challenging curriculum, student engagement and high standards.

    One of the most important recent documents is the report by the Mitchell Institute’s Yong Zhao. That is not referenced! An important pieces of rigorous research by University of Queensland researchers and colleagues shows as clearly as any that independent schools do not contribute to educational gains. More than that it shows the importance of socio economic background and educational attainment of the parents including books in the home and the mother’s work habits as well as the urban setting of the home. Some of those features strongly influence early childhood, attention to which is the single most important determinant of educational advancement.

    Of course the Gonski reforms should be implemented. And the well-tested peer reviewed scholarship by educational researchers around the world should be taken seriously instead of the mish mash of assertions based on no more than discredited economic nonsense unrepresentative of human behaviour and organisations rejected at every turn.

  7. Tom Haig says:

    Over the ditch in NZ the first five charter schools opened in 2014 and four more opened this year. The evidence so far is very mixed.
    The contract design and funding mechanisms have been shown to be not fit for purpose, in that the current model incentivises the school operators to keep them small, which is very expensive. There has been no financial backing from the private sector, and significant sums (all from the public purse) have been returned to the sponsors, either as ‘management fees’, surplus (in the case of charities) or profits.
    In terms of academic results, the sponsors of the schools have made a lot of claims, but actually the results range from reasonably good to absolutely abysmal. They certainly don’t have a miracle cure. One of the schools was on the brink of being closed having failed to meet almost every element of its performance targets in the first year – why the Minister didn’t close it is a mystery as only one student of 70 who started the year there achieved a qualification, the roll now is around 35, there were financial irregularities and most of the staff turned over within 18 months.
    One consequence that became rapidly apparent is that in some communities the charter schools are undermining the viability of curriculum delivery in local public schools – even a hundred or so students moving into a charter school can put great pressure on a secondary school which already has a relatively small and declining roll. Being able to offer free uniforms, tiny class sizes and brand new facilities is attractive for students – all things they can do because of the ‘cashed up’ funding model which is extremely generous as long as the charters are in their start up phase and remain small – which they all have.
    The other thing to note is that they do not have wide public support. They were pushed by a fringe far right party, and have been a continuous source of bad press for the government. They are promoted by the usual neo-liberal commentators, but there is no-one in the education sector with any credibility defending them. In NZ we already have a highly devolved education system where schools are very autonomous and responsive to local communities – so one of the purported rationales for charters that is pushed in places where schools are more centrally controlled does not exist.

  8. Des Griffin says:

    Tom Haig’s comments accord entirely with my understanding of the New Zealand situation. A study by Hugh Lauder and David Hughes in 1989 (‘Trading in Futures Why Markets in education don’t Work’, Open University Press, Buckingham) of independent schools in New Zealand found that they did nothing to improve educational attainment but reinforced social and economic disparities.

    Cathie Wylie, chief researcher at the Council for Education Research, in ‘Vital Connections. Why we need more than self-managed schools’ (Wellington: NZCER Press, 2012). who reviewed developments in schools in New Zealand over the last 20 or so years observed that while innovation was able to be fostered, no system of support for schools in building change was developed, networks for sharing pedagogy were not built and so developing an understanding of how learning motivates and really engages students was missing. Such sharing of knowledge and cooperation are clearly characteristic of many successful reforms in many other domains. Inservice training was reduced, funding for implementing new curricula was reduced.

    There is nothing in the New Zealand experience to support independent schools of any kind.

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