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Why Choice In Education Really Is Choice

Who profits when independent schools are shut out?

Two contrasting narratives are swirling around the education space. One—radical forces are preparing to destroy our fragile public education system. The other—fossilised elements of its structure aren’t fit for purpose and change is necessary. But whether you want to double down on the current direction (translation: “more cash”), or open the door to different approaches (hello, charter schools), we all agree that too many children aren’t getting the education they need.

Those attached to the status quo ignore the compelling evidence that students benefit from educational ecosystems far more diverse than ours. Everything from long-term research out of Stanford University to international OECD studies supports what—internationally—is a decades-old trend. After NZ, Mexico is now the only OECD country that spends a smaller percentage of education funding (zero) on independent schools. How is that working out for Mexico? It’s dead last in the OECD’s tertiary attainment rate for young adults—many of whom you’ll find heading across their northern border.

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By 2012, the majority of OECD governments were contributing more than half of independent schools’ income. In England, 51% of students now attend publicly funded, privately operated schools.

Sweden’s school voucher system is as old as “Shortland Street.”

In Australia, state and national governments generously supplement tuition at Catholic schools (teaching 20% of all students) and independent schools (16% of students—compared to 4% in NZ).

Charter schools began in the US in the 1990s and, despite resistance from the establishment, have proved most popular in the least privileged areas. Far from depleting educational coffers, they receive NZ$5,700 a year less per student, on average, than public schools. And their quality? Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes weighed in definitively in 2023. Comparing students from identical socio-economic backgrounds, those in charter schools were significantly more likely to progress further. Crucially, disadvantaged students benefitted the most.

It’s been 10 years since the previous attempt to introduce charter schools in New Zealand. That small initiative only allowed a dozen schools to serve, at their peak, fewer than 1,500 priority students. Contrary to popular myths, the schools did not “fail”—in fact, they’re still operating and still publicly funded, most as designated character schools. Raewyn Tipene is principal of one, Te Kāpehu Whetu in Whangārei. Her take?

“We came back to mainstream and it was horrendous,” she told RNZ. Despite retaining full funding in the niche designation, she still speaks of burdensome bureaucracy and the ministry’s unresponsiveness to building needs. By contrast, she said that operating as a charter school was “one of the first times I have experienced what freedom felt like. You were given resources, you were told, ‘Here's what you need to achieve, how you do that’s your business,’ and we overachieved.”

New Zealand will never be able to claim a world-class education system if it remains captive to 20th century bureaucratic appendages propping up a 19th century system. Educational choice is not novel, and it’s not risky. The only question left is, “How?”

By Maryanne Spurdle, Researcher, Maxim Institute*

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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