A report released today by the Centre for Independent Studies says Australia should establish charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated schools that operate within the terms of a contract or “charter” which reduces what is seen as stifling public sector regulation. In fact, the report goes one step further in proposing Australia adopt for-profit charter schools.
Does Australia need charter schools?
The first charters appeared in the US in the early 1990s. They have since spread to England, Sweden, Chile and, most recently, New Zealand. So why not here?
The Centre for Independent Studies’ answer to the question is well researched, comprehensive and seriously misdirected.
The report starts with the widely recognised fact that both international and local standardised testing shows Australian schools making little or no headway on improving performance or reducing inequality. It argues that charters might help, in two ways.
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. Second, the report also wants “start-up” charters: schools established from scratch to compete with existing schools.
These new entrants, the report argues, might not only boost performance but bring choice to parents who can’t afford fees or who do not want religion-based schooling for their children. Freed from the usual curriculum and staffing requirements, they would also encourage innovation.
Even in the US, where charters first appeared and have grown to around 6% of enrolments, gains have been limited, as the report is careful to acknowledge. In the crucially different Australian setting, it is likely that any improvement that might flow from “conversion” charters would be more than offset by the effects of start-ups.
Most US studies suggest that many charters there are no better than the schools they compete with or replace, some are worse and some “outperform”.
Their record in innovation is similarly mixed. Some do use their freedom from the usual rules and regulations to innovate, but most pitch to parents in the same way as Australia’s independent schools. They sell on “traditional” values, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline.
As the report candidly concedes, there is little evidence to suggest that for-profit charters do better than the not-for-profits.
Australia is a different ball game
These very equivocal findings provide a less-than-robust platform from which to launch a new kind of school into a system that already has many, but that is not the only problem. The big difficulty is that Australia in 2015 is crucially different from the US in the early 1990s.
The US charters brought choice and competition to a system that had neither. They were an anti-public-school-monopoly measure. The new US charters were not permitted to charge fees, or to discriminate on academic, racial, family income or any other grounds.
Unlike the US, Australia already has a range of ways of organising, funding and running schools. It also has extensive experience of choice and competition, which, in our unique scheme of things, has been a disaster.
The fundamental structural problem is inadvertently uncovered by the report in the course of making out its case that Australian charter schools should be funded to the same level as mainstream public schools, and should be obliged to take all comers.
The obvious question arising: if a level playing field is a good thing within the public sector, why not in the system as a whole?
Around one third of Australian schools are not only permitted to charge fees, but fees up to double the amount spent on the average public school student. They are able to select on academic grounds as well as according to capacity to pay.
This is not just a problem of non-government schools, as is so often supposed. Government systems have joined in via academically selective schools and programs that are in practice socially and ethnically selective as well.
These unique arrangements have set in motion a vicious circle, in which the advantaged choose to go where the advantaged go, leaving behind schools in which the disadvantaged increasingly cluster with the disadvantaged.
As Gonski pointed out, the substrate of educational inequality in Australia is high and rising social segregation in schooling, and his funding recommendations tackled this structural problem at one of its sources.
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.
But feeding yet more choice and competition into a system that has such distorted forms of both can only compound our problems.
It is a shame that the report did not choose to examine the case for competitive neutrality, for a genuinely level funding and regulatory playing field, as the basis of a more equal and productive Australian school system rather than propose what amounts to the further Balkanisation of an already dysfunctional system.