Challenge to govt ‘bullying’ of charter schools

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has no plans to back down on legislation to close charter schools, despite a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal.

The claim alleges Treaty of Waitangi principles have been breached. It aims to stop the process closing charter schools and asks the government to enter into consultation with the claimants.

Lodged on Tuesday by Sir Toby Curtis and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi on behalf of "Māori generally" the claim alleges the government failed to take into consideration the effect closing the schools would have on Māori students.

“We’re making the claim because it is disadvantaging Māori youngsters from being successful, educationally.”

Hipkins told Parliament he would not remove the section forcing the closure of charter schools from the Education Amendment Act in response to the Treaty claim.

Six charter schools have rolls where over 87 percent of students are Māori and the schools face closure unless they successfully transition to become designated character schools.

Decisions on the future of 11 charter schools are expected at the end of July. The Vanguard Military School has already been successful in its application to become a designated character school.

The charter model allowed non-registered teachers to instruct students, lets schools pay teachers rates different to collectively agreed rates, and did not make the schools teach the New Zealand Curriculum.

Curtis said: “We’re making the claim because it is disadvantaging Māori youngsters from being successful, educationally.”

He has served on the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board and is a former teacher.

“They are succeeding at the school they are at and those schools are being closed and being turned into something else.”

Curtis described the process undertaken by the government as “bullying” and said no consultation had taken place with the schools, parents or teachers.

“That’s not what we want at all. In theory we are in agreement with what is being claimed but dragging out the process is a real concern to us.”

E tipu e Rea is a charity supporting charter schools. Its chief executive, Graeme Osborne, said the lack of consultation is in breach of Treaty of Waitangi principles.

E tipu e Rea promoted the idea of a Treaty claim in April “but obviously you need Māori claimants for a Treaty claim,” said Osborne.

“Neither myself nor my organisation, E Tipu e Rea could actually formally file a Treaty claim. We promoted the idea and Sir Toby Curtis and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi are the claimants.”

“There are some key principles to the Treaty that include the concept of partnership, which therefore implies a necessity to, or requirement to consult. There’s a requirement of reciprocity, there’s a concept of active protection. We consider that the Crown at very least has breached the principles of the Treaty in terms of the way they proceeded to close partnership schools.”

Osborne said there was no rational reason to close the schools.

“We’re mystified the government would find it so easy to act against the best interests of young Māori who they themselves define as being at risk.”

He hoped if successful the Treaty claim would lead to a consultation which involved the schools, students, communities  - and evidence.

“If the evidence supported the closing of them and affected people were well considered and catered for then I would say ‘Yeah, okay, all right.’ If an independent [view] is arrived at that these schools should either stay alive or be truncated, then you would find that an easier decision to live with.”

A final outcome he would favour is a continuation of the charter school model but with enhancements.

Osborne thinks charter schools have been underfunded for salaries and school property, although he is in favour of the bulk funding system which had contributed to small class sizes.

“Pākehā education has failed Māori for 178 years. Here we have something that is finally working and it is being closed down.”

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement, said it “remains committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that the state schooling system meets the needs of Māori students”.

“The charter schools’ results, as assessed by the independent Authorisation Board, have been mixed.”

Protecting the character of schools should they transition to a different model was a process already underway, said MacGregor-Reid.

“We have been engaging with the charter schools to discuss the critical elements of each of their kaupapa and to discuss the best way to protect that kaupapa should each school be approved within the state system.

Villa Education Trust, which runs two charter schools in Auckland said the Treaty claim could lengthen the decision-making process.

“That’s not what we want at all. In theory we are in agreement with what is being claimed but dragging out the process is a real concern to us,” said CEO Karen Poole.

“Most of our staff are permanent employees. The longer this process goes, the more uncertainty there is. We have loyal staff, but we run the risk, and I completely understand it, that if they have no certainty for next year, they will look for other jobs.”

Termination of contract letters have been sent to schools, ending the current contract they have with government at the end of the year. Decisions on transition applications will be made in late July.

“Urgent consideration” of the Treaty claim has been applied for. The claim needs to be assessed before it can be registered.

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