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Gordon Campbell on the farcical elevation of David Seymour

Gordon Campbell on the farcical elevation of David Seymour

With the election won, it's time to find jobs for the boy. David Seymour is the Act Party’s latest scrounger to be rewarded by the National Party, and not only with a seat in Parliament. This time around, a couple of parliamentary Undersecretary posts in education and regulatory reform have been thrown in, plus an annual salary of $175,000 while he learns the ropes. Shouldn’t Seymour at least be put on a 90 day trial before he gets his hands on that sort of serious moolah?

It would be for his own good, really. At this rate, Act is never going to learn how to make its own way in the world. It is going backwards. The Act Party got only 14,510 party votes nationwide on election night 2014, a 40% decrease on the 23,889 votes it won at the 2011 election. It’s the benefit trap in action, eroding motivation. It has been nearly 20 years since Richard Prebble first had Wellington Central handed to him on a plate by Jim Bolger, and Act has been on life support ever since. First Prebble, then Rodney Hide and John Banks in Epsom, and now David Seymour. Someone really should tell Paula Bennett about these guys. If Bennett wants a classic example of intergenerational welfare dependency… there it is, grinning shyly at her across the Cabinet table. Four whole generations of Act Party politicians, with no incentive to look elsewhere than to National for their next handout.

Apparently, one of Seymour’s prime responsibilities will be to further the government’s programme of charter schools. Which is kind of apt; a failed political experiment will be looking after a failing educational one. Not only did Act fail to earn a mandate from voters before springing charter schools on them in 2011, it has since failed to justify the extra spending, and failed to conduct a proper review of the scheme before extending its scope. Within the last 24 hours, former President Bill Clinton has made the same point about the failure of US charter schools in the crucial area of proper reviews and evaluation.

Charter schools aren’t worth supporting, Clinton suggested, unless they perform better than traditional public schools.

“They still haven’t done what no state has really done adequately,” Clinton told the group, “which is to set up a review system to keep the original bargain of charter schools, which was if they weren’t outperforming the public model, they weren’t supposed to get their charter renewed.”

Exactly. Some charter schools in the US – like the ones in New Orleans that Clinton cited, or the Washington DC charter schools that have delivered results in reading scores have succeeded… but these tend to be the exceptions, not the rule, as this major piece of US research in 2013 has shown:

Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes looked at test data from charter schools in 26 states and the District and found that 25 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools in reading while 29 percent of charters delivered stronger results in math. That marked an improvement over a similar 2009 study by the same research team.

But 56 percent of the charters produced no significant difference in reading and 19 percent had worse results than traditional public schools. In math, 40 percent produced no significant difference and 31 percent were significantly worse than regular public schools.

Right. A clear majority of charter schools “produced no significant difference in reading” and nearly a fifth had worse results in reading. When it came to mathematics, 71% were either no better or were significantly worse than state schools. This is the model we want to throw millions at on an ideological hunch, while ordinary public schools in New Zealand struggle for lack of funds? In the US, those charter schools that do outperform state schools routinely require extra funding to do so. Yet like Seymour – who is getting a $175,000 salary (well in excess of en electorate MP) from the taxpayer while he’s still on his trainer wheels as a politician - charter schools are being put in place here before (a) anyone voted for them (b) before anyone established a need for them (c) and before anything like a rigorous evaluation scheme for their performance is in place. Regardless, the government is pressing on to put four more charter schools in place.

It’s very much like the Labour leadership contest preceding its election campaign review. Lets charge on and throw more money at charter schools before we get the full and proper review as what’s been good - and bad - about their recent performance.

Is it really appropriate to pay a novice like Seymour to pursue regulatory reform across government, when his own performance as an undersecretary will be exempted both from parliamentary questioning and from scrutiny under the Official Information Act?

Hardly. Surely, transparency with respect to his roles in education and regulatory reform should come with the job. Major amounts of taxpayer money are involved. As mentioned, the existing overseas evidence shows that charter schools can surpass state schools only when significantly more funds are thrown their way. In the New Zealand context, most of that money will be coming from the taxpayer, especially in the set-up phase. The entire process should be entirely transparent when it comes to performance, results, opportunity cost etc. However, that’s not happening here. No doubt, Seymour will be expecting accountability from others when it comes to ‘regulatory reform” – yet in the role in which he has been carefully slotted, Seymour himself has been exempted from accountability. No OIA inquiries, no questioning in Parliament, nada.

Needless to say, this situation isn’t being described by the media with anything like the language – mess, debacle, disaster, train wreck etc etc – reserved for the Labour leadership contest. At least the Labour Party meltdown isn’t costing the taxpayer millions of dollars in policy handouts and in gold-plated salaries for government cronies. A week ago, No Right Turn pointed out how much the arrangement looks like a back door form of state funding for Act. In Prime Minister John Key’s own words, the elevation of Seymour is meant to enhance the Act Party’s capacity to function vis a vis National:

He [Key] was today talking up the possibility of making the first-time MP [an] Associate Education Minister.

"When they have more staffing and resources as a result of a junior ministerial role it is easier from both their perspective and ours - otherwise we'd have an MP pretty much on his own with an EA (executive assistant) and it's very difficult to manage that overall party-to-party relationship."

Meaning : to every outward appearance, David Seymour is not being promoted on merit – but in order that his elevation can win his party access to a bigger slice of funds from the taxpayer to manage “the overall party-to-party relationship.” As NRT goes on to indicate, this cosy arrangement has been legal – since 2009 it would seem - under Cabinet Manual provision 2.21 (i) that says Ministers “have a political role in maintaining government stability, which requires maintaining close working relationships with all other parties as issues arise.”

Now you might think that this expansion of the ministerial role since the advent of the Key government in 2008 – with the related funding opportunities for Act – is exactly the sort of regulatory creep that David Seymour should be cracking down on as a matter of principle in the name of… you know, regulatory reform. Fat chance of that. To paraphrase good old Barry Goldwater, regulatory creep in the pursuit of self-interest is no vice - not to a libertarian, anyway.

Who better than Leonard Cohen to say out loud what everyone knows in their bones….

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