14 May 2024

Charter schools: What are they, how are they different, and are they better than public schools?

5:00 pm on 14 May 2024

More than $150 million has been set aside by the coalition government in Budget 2024 to create up to 50 new or converted charter schools.

Charter schools first opened their doors to students in New Zealand in 2014.

They were shut down by former education minister Chris Hipkins in 2018, who said they were "a failed, expensive experiment".

But what exactly are charter schools and what makes them different from regular public schools?

Here's what you need to know.

David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

What is a charter school?

According to the Ministry of Education, charter schools are another version of a government-funded school that provides teachers and parents "with more choice".

Teachers in charter schools are given a different model of accountability, which provides more freedom for them in what is taught to students - and how it is taught to them.

Children must still be safe, attending school and be able to show that they are learning.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour said charter schools provide educators with greater autonomy, create diversity in the education system and allow teachers freedom from state and union interference.

He said they will "raise overall educational achievement, especially for students who are underachieving or disengaged from the current system".

The ministry said the name charter schools | kura hourua "signifies the partnership between charter school operators and the government, and between charter schools and their communities".

What is the difference between a charter school and public school?

According to the ministry, there are five main differences between these types of schools. The legal structure, governance, monitoring and intervention, funding and financial control, and the curriculum.

Legal structure

While public schools have their objectives set out in legislation, charter schools are operated independently by what is known as "sponsors".

Each school will have its own specific targets it must meet in an individual contract between the sponsor and the government.


The ministry said public schools each have a Board of Trustees which is accountable to the parents of the school's students. There is no such accountability to the parent community for charter schools. Each individual charter school can choose to be accountable to its parent community if it chooses to.

With some restrictions, Seymour said charter schools can set their own governance.

Monitoring and intervention

Public schools are monitored by the Education Review Office, the ministry said. This judges the school's achievement, engagement and student's wellbeing.

If needed, the ministry can intervene and help support a school if it is struggling.

In terms of charter schools, the ministry said sponsors are responsible for meeting performance targets specified in their individual contract. They face intervention, replacement, or even termination of contract if they do not meet the targets.

Seymour said: "To provide certainty to sponsors, they will have a fixed-term contract of 10 years to operate a charter school, with two rights of renewal for 10 years each. All fixed-term periods are conditional on the school continuing to meet the terms of its contract."

Funding and financial control

Funding for public schools is provided by the Ministry of Education and based on the number of students, their year levels, educational disadvantage and location, the ministry said.

For charter schools, the ministry said funding is largely based on a "per-student" rate.

Seymour said charter schools have a greater flexibility in how they spend their money - as long as the individual school is reaching its agreed performance outcomes.


The curriculum public schools must use is the New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.

Charter schools do not have that same requirement, and can set their own curriculum.

Not only that, but Seymour said they can also set their own hours and days of operation.

David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

So what is the government actually doing?

The coalition government has set aside $153m of new funding for charter schools over the next four years.

The money will establish 15 new charter schools and convert 35 state schools in 2025 and 2026, depending on demand and suitability.

Seymour said there has been "overwhelming interest" from educators in exploring the charter model.

"We've heard from potential applicants such as TIPENE St Stephen's Māori Boy's Boarding School, and AGE School.

"By focusing primarily on student achievement, charter schools allow sponsors and communities to take their own path getting there."

According to Seymour, the changes will lift declining educational outcomes.

"Charter schools provide educators with greater autonomy, create diversity in New Zealand's education system, free educators from state and union interference, and raise overall educational achievement, especially for students who are underachieving or disengaged from the current system.

"They provide more options for students, reinforcing the sector's own admission that 'one size' doesn't fit all."

Will charter schools need to enforce the cellphone ban?

No. Seymour said charter schools will be exempt from the cellphone ban in schools that came into play recently.

"They won't be forced to do things such as the cellphone ban, but if you look at a school like this, you don't see any cellphones, and I expect that by and large they will operate the same way."

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David Seymour took part in a 2018 march, protesting the closure of charter schools. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Is there any controversy around charter schools?

Ministry of Education documents reveal there were major gaps in the monitoring of charter schools and their owners between 2013-18 - some of which the government of the day declined to fix.

They included no independent measurement of student achievement, no close analysis to ensure the schools were attracting the priority learners they were intended to serve, inadequate financial monitoring and sub-standard properties.

The details came from "close out" reports completed in 2019 and obtained by RNZ under the Official Information Act.

New Zealand Principals' Federation president Leanne Otene told RNZ earlier this year the documents showed there was no evidence charter schools met any of the then-government's stated goals.

Otene also hit out at bulk funding, which allowed charter schools under the previous model to spend taxpayer money however they wanted.

Otene told RNZ any school considering the new charter school model should tread carefully.

"Schools are all self-managing, so I expect principals and their boards of trustees will consider the minister's offer to become a charter school, while taking into account the evidence of the effectiveness of charter school operations in the past, the impact on teaching and learning, and at the centre of that, the needs of their tamariki.

"My advice to any school considering becoming a charter school is that they be very cautious, that they consult with their community and they consider all the information carefully. We want to make sure that all new policies introduced are in the best interests of our young people, that they're well supported by research and include our practical experience."

Do any schools prefer being a charter school?

Some former charter schools told RNZ in December they were interested in the coalition government's plan to bring them back.

Te Kāpehu Whetu principal Raewyn Tipene said the school moved to the state system when charter contracts were cancelled. She said it involved a lot more bureaucracy.

"We came back to mainstream and it was horrendous. Largely it's a different environment working in the public sector," she said.

"It's bureaucratic, the bureaucracy [is] amazing. The thing about partnership schools... it is 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."

The leader of another school said one of the advantages of the charter contracts was that they allowed schools to concentrate on a niche subject.

They said their school was interested in the government's plans, but it would need to see more details before it made any decisions. They also worried that a change of government could again result in cancellation of charter school contracts, with the schools required to close or join the state system.

They said their school would never have been created without the charter legislation and its high attendance and NCEA pass rates proved its value.

David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

Vanguard Military School was once a charter school. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

Why did they stop?

Former education minister Chris Hipkins announced in early 2018 that charter schools would be no longer.

He said they were driven by "ideology rather than evidence" and were rejected by the "vast majority" of the education sector.

"The government's strong view is that there is no place for them in the New Zealand education system," he said at the time.

Hipkins told RNZ that those first charter schools were not doing much different that they could not do in the public school system.

Does NZ have any charter schools currently?

There are no charter schools currently operating in New Zealand. All previous charter schools either became state-integrated, special character schools or do not exist anymore.

According to the ministry, special character schools teach the NZ curriculum but also have their own set of objectives and purposes to reflect their own particular values. They may also have a commitment to a particular philosophy or culture.

Vanguard Military School, where Seymour made the charter school announcement on 14 May, is one such school.

So what happens now?

Budget 2024 will be officially announced on 30 May. Once legislation is introduced to Parliament in June/July, schools will be able to apply to be a charter school.

The ministry said the charter schools legislation bill will be enacted in September, and in October and November, contracts will be negotiated and signed with the successful applicants.

The first charter schools are expected to open in Term 1 of 2025.

Seymour said he hoped and intended to see "many new charter schools opening".

"Every child deserves the opportunity to succeed, to achieve to the best of their ability, and to gain qualifications that will support them into further study and employment."

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