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Muriel Newman: School Choice Fundamental

Choice of School is a Fundamental Freedom
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman MP

Over the summer, major concerns have been raised about the school zoning regulations introduced by this Government. Families with one child at a school can't now send their other children to the same school if they live outside the school zone. Families that can afford to, are able to buy houses in their good school zone, but others miss out.

Choice of where to send children to school is a fundamental freedom which this Government has taken away from parents.

Most families do prefer to send their children to their local school. If they choose to send them somewhere else it is because they believe they will do better there. How can denying parents the right to ensure their children have the education they want possibly be an advantage.

Interestingly, the Minister of Education has benefited from school choice - sending his children outside the local school zone for their education. Yet this same Minister is now denying other parents that choice.

Failing schools are the blight of a nation. They destroy children's futures. It is a crime to have children condemned, year after year, to attending schools that fail to give them the skills, habits and knowledge that they will need to succeed in later life.

When the Education Review Office reported on all Northland schools a few years ago, it found that only 9 percent of children attended 'good' schools. The rest were in schools assessed as 'average' or 'poor'. Yet many of these children were the most in need of a good education, living in isolated areas, with benefit dependent parents who did not value education and were not in a position to remedy the deficiencies of their school.

I spent 20 years in the education system in New Zealand and the United States. During that time I met many teachers disillusioned with teaching and poor at their job. Yet 20 years on, many were still there, ruining the lives of children. If there had been a performance pay system in place - rewarding the good, and penalising the poor teachers - then this pricing signal would have encouraged them to seek another career.

In the same way, there needs to be a pricing signal for schools. If education funding followed the child it would create a positive incentive for schools to achieve educational excellence by focusing on student success.

That was certainly the case with the United Nations International School in New York, a bilingual school with 1500 students from new entrants to form seven. With half the children from United Nations families, and the other half New Yorkers, the one thing they had in common was that they were empowered; many paid US$11,000 a year in tuition fees and they had strong expectations of excellence.

Back in the 1970s, as a new New Zealand teacher, I soon learned what that meant!

I taught a Maths class of students, some with very poor English, from a number of different countries. One student, a New Yorker, was very disruptive. I couldn't wait for the parent-teacher evening, so I could tell her parents what I thought of their daughter.

The evening arrived and they were first to see me - all four of them as they had divorced and re-married. They were all concerned about Mary.

I started to ask them what they were going to do about their daughter, but got cut off: "Why are you failing in your job?" they asked.

"What on earth do you mean", I responded, and as they replied, they pointed at me like a firing squad.

"You are paid to teach our daughter mathematics. She's bright isn't she? You are failing in your job".

Mary was very bright, but I was used to a system in New Zealand back in those days, where you didn't blame yourself as a teacher if a child was failing, you blamed the parents instead.

I had never met empowered parents before, and I quickly realised that if I didn't sort this problem out, there was a fair chance that I wouldn't hold my job for long.

It was a lesson I have never forgotten, and during the rest of my career I focused on student success. It turned out that Mary was disruptive because she didn't wear her glasses and couldn't see the blackboard. We made a pact, Mary, her parents and I - she had to wear her glasses, they had to make sure she did her homework, and I had to give her extension work to keep her challenged. She came second in the class at the end of the year, something she could never have achieved without that memorable meeting with empowered parents.

I used to think about the power of incentives years later, when my son was going through secondary school. For years I asked his teachers to give him extension work to keep him challenged. They always agreed, but never did anything. I did it myself, but I often wondered how different it would have been if I and say, four other parents, went to the Principal and said that we were unhappy that the school wasn't extending our sons and that we were going to transfer them to another school.

If the boys had gone, that would be one thing, but if their $5,000 each in state funding went as well, that would be something else. I suspect that the prospect of the school losing $25,000 in funding because our boys were not being given extension work would have generated the sort of action that we were asking for.

If we are serious about lifting education in this country, ensuring rising standards and student success, it is essential that we get the incentives right - parents must be able to choose the school that they send their children to and the funding must follow the child. ________________________________________

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

View the archive of columns at http://www.act.org.nz/search.jsp?type=y1240
Visit ACT New Zealand's web site: http://www.act.org.nz/

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