charter schools in Australia

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

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.