17 May 2024

The Week in Politics: Charter schools, special police units and a tricky problem for the government

4:01 pm on 17 May 2024
David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

Charter schools are back and there's going to be more of them, specialist police units will be formed to deal with gangs, and how will the government meet its commitment to end all vaccine mandates when they were scrapped in September 2022?

Analysis - The most talked about political event this week was ACT leader David Seymour's announcement that there would be $153 million in the budget for 15 new charter schools, and they could be joined by another 35 converted state schools.

Charter schools are ACT policy and Seymour was appointed an associate education minister so he could handle them.

They first opened their doors to students in 2014 and were shut down by Labour in 2018 when the then education minister, Chris Hipkins, described them as "a failed, expensive experiment."

They are publicly funded and privately run as not for profit businesses.

As RNZ has reported, they have a wide range of freedoms that state schools do not, including control of their own curriculum and hours. The can hire unregistered teachers and would even be exempt from government policies such as the cellphone ban.

Seymour's argument in favour of charter schools is the same now as it was when they were first introduced.

"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 are disengaged from the current system," he said.

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

When they were first introduced they were fiercely fought by the teacher unions, and nothing has changed.

"It's taking public money and putting it into private pockets, and making money off children," said Post Primary Teacher's Association president Chris Abercrombie. "It's the privatisation of a public good. It's for the betterment of the whole nation to have a really strong public education system."

The primary teacher's union, NZEI, said Seymour's approach didn't make sense. "Why try to create an entirely separate network when you could just change things for the principals running our public schools?" said NZEI president Mark Potter.

Seymour's reaction to union protests, reported by Stuff: "They should be honest, they should come out and say 'the reason we don't like charter schools is that it is an existential threat to our model because we collect a percentage of our members' salary'."

Seymour insists the first charter schools were a success and says the new ones will be closely monitored. That wasn't always the case with the first 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," RNZ reported.

"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."

Stuff's Tova O'Brien recalled some of the problems. "Some things went wrong with ACT's first foray into charter schools, in one case where truancy was rife, achievements and behaviour were poor and public money was being mismanaged," she said.

"The charter school in Whangaruru was eventually shut down but not before $5.2 million of taxpayer money was spent on it."

O'Brien said Seymour argued that mismanagement happened throughout the education system and the fact that one school was shut down spoke to the extremely high compliance thresholds for charter schools. "But one school being forced to shut down out of just 13 charter schools in such a short period is arguably not a great hit rate," she said.

Something that may not be widely known in New Zealand and which Seymour used in his announcement was that in the UK 40 per cent of primary schools and 80 per cent of secondary schools are charter schools, known as academies.

Labour's Jan Tinetti arrives at Wellington Airport on 16 October 2023 following the election at the weekend.

Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Hipkins, this time around, isn't sure what he would do about charter schools.

"What we did last time is we integrated them into the state education system," he said on Newshub's AM Show. "It's too soon to say what we would do next time around because we don't yet know what the contracts are going to be, we don't yet know what the structure is going to be - but we do believe that schools should be part of the public education system."

Labour's education spokesperson Jan Tinetti, a former principal, said Seymour's policy was driven by ideology rather than evidence. "There are more examples of charter schools failing their students than there are success stories," she said.

Seymour expects the first charter schools to open at the beginning of the first term next year. They will be under 10-year contracts and he said there had already been several expressions of interest from state schools which were thinking about converting.

Tackling gangs

Running a close second to the charter schools announcement this week was Police Commissioner Andrew Coster and Police Minister Mark Mitchell announcing a National Gang Unit would be established to target crime, harm and intimidation caused by patched members.

It would be supported by District Gang Disruption Teams.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster with Police Minister Mark Mitchell announcing the police's new national gang unit.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster with Police Minister Mark Mitchell announcing the police's new national gang unit. Photo: RNZ / Finn Blackwell

Coster did most of the talking. He said he expected 25 to 30 people would staff the new national unit while the smaller district teams would have about seven officers.

"He said he believed there would be a reduction in gang numbers (currently around 9000) once they got the units up and running and got the tools the government was providing through new legislation," RNZ reported.

"Other new legislation would include a ban on gang insignia in public places and giving police greater powers to stop gang members congregating."

The bill containing those powers has passed its first reading and is being examined by the Justice Select Committee. After the committee reports it back to Parliament it has three more stages to pass before becoming law.

Coster said gang members committed a disproportionate amount of crime and harm in New Zealand particularly in the areas of serious assault, robberies, drug and firearm offences, and homicides.

Police Association president Chris Cahill said without more information on the unit's budget and where its staff would come from, the proposal appeared to simply increase the workload for an already stretched force, the Herald reported.

"I very much want to see the proof of the pudding of where these resources are coming from and the budget to back them up," he said. "To be honest, it looks like an announcement that sounds good with a flash new name, I'm not sure that there's any evidence that it's actually going to be extra resources or a game changer."

Cahill said there were existing teams focused on gang activity in different regions and questioned whether the local units proposed would be any different.

The Herald report went on to quote University of Canterbury sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert, author of 'Patched: the history of gangs in New Zealand'.

Gilbert said he interpreted the proposal as the police responding to a changing political environment and public sentiment towards gangs. "I would suspect a political environment reflects public views that the overt gang violence and disorder are unacceptable and need attention," he said.

"It's going to be enormously resource-intensive early on and, furthermore, it has the potential to create really serious tensions which is something that will be of concern to police."

Labour's police spokesperson, Ginny Andersen, said without key details it appeared the government had announced "more of the same".

She was concerned how police could staff the units. "They will be using the same people doing the same work under a different label because there are only so many detectives and trained people who work in that space currently," she said.

Building roads

The government made a further move in its road-building programme this week when Transport Minister Simeon Brown announced a list of Roads of Regional Significance to sit alongside its Roads of National Significance.

Minister Simeon Brown at post-cab

Transport Minister Simeon Brown. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The projects would come from $6.5 million in funding already set aside, RNZ reported.

They replace the previous government's New Zealand Upgrade scheme, which has been troubled with cost overuns, Stuff reported.

The New Zealand Transport Agency/Waka Kotahi will be in charge of the programme. "We're taking it away from ministers making these decision, and we're giving it to the New Zealand Transport Agency board," Brown said.

Ending Covid mandates - again?

An interesting problem was aired by RNZ this week - how will the government meet its pledge to end all Covid-19 vaccine mandates, given they were scrapped more than a year-and-a-half ago?

Foreign Minister Winston Peters gives a speech to the New Zealand China Council amid debate over AUKUS.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / NICK MONRO

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters campaigned on ending mandates when he was seeking votes from the anti-mandate protesters and the pledge became part of the coalition agreement.

That was despite them being axed in September 2022.

"Asked what additional actions were required to fulfil the promise, a spokesperson for NZ First told RNZ: 'our team is still working through the details'," the report said.

The prime minister's office referred questions to the Minister of Health, Shane Reti.

Speaking to RNZ, Reti said the mandate was not on "an active schedule" but he had discussed it with officials.

The report said it was not clear how many organisations currently had workplace agreements relating to the vaccine. Asked whether the government would intervene in private businesses' decisions, Reti said the government would "at this point… leave it to them."

Labour's health spokesperson, Ayesha Verrall, said the commitment appeared to be little more than a sop to conspiracy theorists. "I'm aware parts of the coalition got a lot of support from people who were anti-Covid mandates but those have really well and truly been disestablished," she said.

Reti denied the coalition had included the commitment simply to appease conspiracy theorist.

Budget day looms

Christopher Luxon during a pre-budget speech in Auckland.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon during his pre-budget speech. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

Members of Auckland's Business Chamber would have been disappointed this week if they had expected to learn something new about the budget when Prime Minister Christopher Luxon addressed their meeting.

He did give a general overview, however, saying there wouldn't be any curveballs or bells and whistles.

"I'm not expecting this year's budget to be a surprise," he said. "And that's exactly the way it should be. We will do exactly what we said we would do."

Not surprisingly, that included a reaffirmed commitment to tax relief.

Green MP remains suspended

Suspended Green Party MP Darleen Tana has missed as many Parliament sitting days this year as she has attended and she's still on full pay, Newshub reported.

Green MP Darleen Tana

Green Party MP Darleen Tana. Photo: Green Party NZ

She was stood down on 14 March because of allegations of migrant exploitation involving her husband's business.

The Greens appointed a lawyer to carry out an inquiry into what Tana had known about the alleged exploitation.

"After the investigation began further information came to light which has led to the investigation taking longer," a party spokesperson said.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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