Charter schools, yes or no?

There has been some vigorous debate in the last fortnight about the merits of charter schools and their applicability to Australian education, based mainly on this recent report.

Advocates claim that such settings would provide more choice, encourage innovation and ease pressure on existing services. Opponents cite concerns about government abdicating its responsibility for education, the potential impact of for-profit providers and the failure of some charter schools in the USA.

So do we need charter schools here? It’s the wrong question. In effect all of our independent and Catholic schools are a form of charter school – they receive public funding to deliver a program in accordance with their own mission.

We also shouldn’t forget that there are other private providers already out there running programs for school age kids directly from the public purse, often because government schools pass on their funding directly to those providers.

The real question is whether we need more diversity in the public education system and the clear answer to this is yes.

We’ve had an explosion of non government schools in the last decade, driven by the availability of public funding and, whether we like it or not, the desire of parents for alternatives to public schools. This begs the question of whether government should be doing more to encourage those alternatives within state education.

Sure there is some diversity within the public education system. There are your run of the mill state schools, select entry schools, schools that specialise in areas such as sport or performing arts and in recent years the emergence of a range of alternative settings, sometimes connected to public schools but sometimes standing somewhat independent despite their public funding.

In Victoria we saw the slow decline of technical schools and their subsequent erasure from the landscape, accompanied by the creation of state secondary colleges with a brief to cater for all. This has been countered to some extent by the emergence of vocational programs in schools but the unease in this area is evident through intermittent policy initiatives such as Australian Technical Colleges, Trade Training Centres and now, in Victoria at least, a set of new ‘technical schools’. But I’m not sure we’ve filled that gap for kids who don’t fit the mould.

I’m not an advocate of for-profit charter schools. There’s too much of the public dollar already making its way outside of public schools. And there is plenty of evidence of the potential pitfalls of profit making ventures, from the current issue in Melbourne to the rorts prevalent in the training sector. That’s before you even look overseas where you can see the issues generated when there are inadequate controls around charter schools.

But there is also an argument that we might look more closely at the potential for public funding of alternative education settings that address some of our intransigent problems. One of these is the significant number of young people who are disconnected from mainstream schooling.

There are a multitude of alternative settings attempting to cater for these young people, whose common characteristics include mental health issues and low levels of literacy and numeracy. These settings are of variable quality and are all clamouring for more funding which is understandable because these vulnerable young people are more expensive to educate.

I hear people say that if only public schools had more funding this issue wouldn’t exist. This might be true to some extent but for many of these young people it’s school itself that’s the issue: its structures, expectations, disciplines, lack of relationships and inflexibility.

Why not consider the possibility of new models within the public education system to address this issue? Call them charter schools or something else, I don’t particularly care. But there may be something to be gained through a trial initiative of such settings. One of the caveats should be that they remain within the public education system and that they collaborate with local schools over enrolment policies, curriculum models and reintegration strategies.

In 2007 I saw first hand the difference that charter schools could make in the lives of disengaged young people during a visit to Minnesota, where the charter school movement effectively began in the early 1990’s. Successful models, such as the HSRA,  should be considered alongside the many failures. The difference, I suspect, is the underpinnings of those models and their place in the context of overall educational provision in their neighbourhoods.

As Steve Bracks’ review group has flagged in Victoria, there could be some loading on the funding for disengaged students. I think the chances of running a successful program are compromised if the attempt is made on a school site. We either need different models of governance or models such as our NETschool that sit physically and culturally apart from, but connected to, public schools.

Is there other scope for public charter schools or alternative school types? Perhaps. The TAFE system is already a huge provider of school level programs. One potential issue here is the difference in the duty of care provided in a TAFE versus a school setting as well as the cost to government which is likely to be higher in a TAFE setting.

Pubic schools will be particularly wary of any initiative that may result in a further loss of academically capable students. But with the right controls there may well be a place for alternative types of public school, by whatever name they’re known.

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