A Charter for Nonsense

Well, it’s been a little over a year since New Zealand’s bold experiment in charter schools began. As John Key once said of MMP, now might be a good time to “kick the tyres”. But rather than rake over the troubling issues at Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, it might be worth analysing the motivations for opening charter schools in the first place. And considering these motivations, I have come to the strange but rather refreshing conclusion that every single school in New Zealand is a charter school.

The mantra of the pro-charter brigade is that they offer ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ and that this will ‘raise the bar’ in terms of achievement. The dreadful Soviet-style Ministry of Education-led mass of state schools, on the other hand, is failing too many of our kids and is unaccountable to concerned parents blah blah blah.

So, let me channel my inner concerned parent and see if the maligned state system can offer any solutions to their requests for more ‘choice’.

I hate that confusing, namby-pamby NCEA nonsense – my child needs a different qualification which suits his/her needs.

Well, you could try Auckland Grammar (a state school) which offers the Cambridge qualification, or Takapuna Grammar (a state school), which offers the International Baccalaureate, for example.

I don’t want my child studying with members of the opposite sex – it’s distracting.

New Zealand has over 100 boys’ and girls’ single-sex state colleges.

I think a religious education is important for building my child’s values and character.

OK, we have 332 primary and secondary schools which are state-integrated with a special faith character.

I’m a raving lefty and I find uniforms so restrictive and controlling.

Well, there’s Wellington High School, “a perfectly good school down the road” according to Roger Moses, headmaster of the more traditional Wellington College, and I hear Onslow College is big on the old mufti too.

I think that living in a boarding house teaches independence and maturity.

Good-oh. Well, yes you got it, there are a number of state schools which take boarders.

I like the ethos of private schools, but I can’t afford the fees.

You could try Hutt International Boys’ School. Its fee voluntary donation is over $4000 a year. And the website is pretty glitzy. You can pretend to the other members of your book club that you’re educating your sprogs privately, at a quarter of the price!

My local school’s ERO report is disappointing. Who is responsible for improving the school’s achievement?

You are. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Tomorrow’s Schools took control of schools away from the ‘monolithic’ Department of Education and vested it in an elected board of trustees from each school’s community. You could stand for election to the board. If you live in a low-decile area, there’s a good chance you will be elected without opposition. Then, you could grill the principal on the poor results. Hell, you could sack him if you tried hard enough. But, you would also see first hand some of the funding issues around providing a decent education and the other challenges facing your community. ERO will inspect every now and again, but will only get the Ministry to step in when things become diabolical. Oh, and you won’t get paid for your responsibility. Don’t be daft! Aotearoa runs on ‘volunteers’ (more on this in a later blog post). But if you have the time to help rebuild the school’s vision, focus and values, and then work with the principal to improve teacher professional development and parental interaction, the data suggests that you can turn a school’s performance around pronto (see Selwyn College for a good example). Alternatively, you could just move into the zone of a high-decile school and let someone else worry about it.

I just want the best education possible for my child.

Aha! That’s better. Of course you do. Indeed, that’s about the only thing that everyone can agree on. Well, with a state school and a charter school you can view NCEA results and ERO reports and make your choice. Oh, and the charter school can employ unregistered teachers. Yes, that’s right: unregistered teachers. Why would they do that? I dunno. It’s probably just a coincidence that refusing to renew a teacher’s registration is one way a school can get rid of an incompetent teacher. Where might such teachers end up teaching, I wonder? It’s also a little odd that National and ACT claim that the most important factor in student achievement is not decile or socio-economic status, but teacher quality. Odd because they then endorse a charter system which does not require teachers to be registered i.e. trained in pedagogy and classroom management. Weird.

And there you have it. The whole charter school agenda seems to be based on an ideology that is both incoherent and self-contradictory. I do not want the current five charter schools to fail. On the contrary, I wish them every success, as I do private schools. After all, they contain kids who want to learn and achieve. But I am not convinced that any case has been made for the state to support them. If they fail they will likely just be reintegrated into the state system, as happened with Wanganui Collegiate, to cite a recent example.

Perhaps the most disturbing attitude is the notion that providing ‘competition’ would force ‘failing’ schools to improve or close. The business analogy is depressing and dangerous. If a coffee shop or a car yard closes, I simply have to get my coffee and my car elsewhere. The disruption to everybody is trivial (except for the poor proprietors). A failing school, on the other hand, would mean several years of declining results affecting cohort after cohort in a given community. This is much more damaging to a community and its employment prospects than the demise of a business.

I am not shrugging complacently at underachievement. The answer is not to hope that a charter school might open and allow escape for some from a struggling school. By definition, charter schools are not centrally planned to deal with places of greatest need. Intervention, in the form of monitoring the performance of (and, if need be, replacing) principals and senior management at underperforming schools, is crucial.

National’s other incentive, offering a carrot after years of using a stick against those bolshy teachers, is similarly welcome but puzzling. Executive teachers and principals will be paid more to share their skills with other teachers. I am hugely supportive of collaborative initiatives, as is the PPTA, and ‘paying good teachers more’ as JK happily put it, is long overdue. But there is one touted solution which Investing in Educational Success claims to offer, about which I have my doubts. It is claimed that it will act as a stick to drive out underperforming teachers, because they will look enviously as other teachers rake in more money for being better / working harder. Nonsense. If a weak or lazy teacher is happy to take their current salary, then paying others more changes nothing. Again, only support and training, or something more drastic for the small minority of teachers who are irredeemably bad, will improve matters.

So, a raft of ideas and initiatives, some good, some bad, which are unlikely to provide the necessary solutions to poorly-understood problems: it’s the standard procedure for policymakers!

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To GST or not to GST

Right, well, now that the bloody c***ket is finally over, I think that like a long-forgotten tax return, a post about revenue is overdue. And what better subject than the vexed and thorny question of what to do about those pesky overseas retailers, peddling their super-cheap goods to grateful Kiwis with nary a scrap of GST to pay. The Honourable Bill English, no less, waded into the debate and said that we needed to “take another look at taxing GST on online purchases from overseas, to give battling Kiwi retailers a level-playing field“.

What? Bahahahahaha. I buy a lot of stuff online – clothing, CDs, books – and I can say that the price differential, even taking shipping and the exchange rate into account is significantly more than 15%. It is often double or treble the price to buy in NZ. Take a look at any TradeMe forum or blog comments on the subject and you will find scores of examples in virtually every branch of retail. And it’s not that Kiwis are ruthlessly preserving every spare cent. A friend needed some new trainers, and had researched a specific brand and style he was interested in on the web. He then approached a Kiwi sports retailer, who shall remain nameless, and asked them to do their best possible deal for him, as he was happy to support local retailers provided that the price differential was not too great.

Problem 1: they did not stock the particular sport shoe he was after and could not order it. Problem 2: having suggested an alternative of comparable cost and quality, they did not have any in stock in his size and it would take 10 working days to arrive. Problem 3: their ‘best possible price’, even taking into account shipping costs and the exchange rate, was almost double the overseas retailer’s price. Understandably, he said ‘sorry, guys’ and walked away.

USA: $99.99 + $20 shipping - NZ: $219.99 + $5 delivery = NO BRAINER (even factoring in the exchange rate and GST).
USA: $99.99 + $20 shipping – NZ: $219.99 + $5 delivery = NO BRAINER (even factoring in the exchange rate and GST).

Indeed, a few days later Bill’s boss was rather less disingenuous: “John Key said yesterday that the growth of online shopping was affecting the Government’s tax take and warned that New Zealanders could expect to start paying tax on online purchases as small as song downloads.” He’s right of course. Right that the growth in overseas online shopping is going to hammer the tax take. And utterly wrong, of course, if he thinks that there will be an effective method of capturing such GST on low value items that isn’t hamstrung by huge administration costs.

Even the industry itself has switched tack, fully aware that public sympathy for the profits and livelihoods of Kiwi retailers is barely twitching the dial. Here is Rod Duke of Briscoes Group:

“GST and the collection of taxes in this country provides education, health, police, and public servants with employment, and any scheme which diminishes that and, what’s more, leaves money overseas in the hands of people that don’t even live in this country, is probably not fair,” Duke said.

Oh spare me your faux concern for public servants, education and health, Rod! Mind you, at least Duke is not so delusional that he blames NZ retailers’ struggles on the injustices of the current GST regime. Oh no wait, yes he is!

“I think competition is fantastic and it makes things fair, but it’s only fair if the playing fields are even.”

The commentariat / blogosphere across the spectrum also seem to have identified the wrong problem, or the wrong solution, or both. The Taxpayers’ Gobshites Union are ambivalent about whether it would be worth removing the $400 GST threshold, but naturally shoehorn in their mantra that there must be a corresponding tax cut elsewhere. We get it, fellas: all tax is evil. All flesh is grass. And of course, all right-wing governments reduce the tax take and cut spending, right? So how does that explain that deficit which stubbornly refuses to come down? And that there are more public servants in Wellington than when National took over in 2008? Hmm.

Over at the Stranded, we have a serious misunderstanding of the slippery slope fallacy, in a confused attempt to refute economics blogger Dr. Eric Crampton. To summarise, no matter how complicated it will be to gather revenue via Customs or getting retailers to stamp bar codes, or just trusting good ol’ Uncle Amazon to administer it (never mind that this would consolidate power in the hands of the online giants, who would find it easier and less intrusive to comply), it’s all about being ‘fair’ to NZ retailers, who cannot compete anyway. At least the writer sheepishly admits “Eric is right on one thing, though. Once you’ve done this stuff, the extra government revenue will be about zero.” Which is the key. Taxes should be progressive and fair, but if in making them fair they cost as much to administer as the revenue they bring in, then forget it.

I don’t believe NZ retailers (large and small) are wilfully greedy and lazy. Far from it. They simply cannot ship and warehouse sufficient stock on our isolated and lowly populated islands, with anything like the economies of scale that overseas firms enjoy. Even Crampton offers no real solution other than a parody alternative. To make matters worse, fly-by-night cowboys.like Netflix have gleefully declared their unwillingness to charge GST, aided and abetted by those dastardly ISPs such as Orcon and Slingshot. They have the gall to offer VPN services to clients who wish to avoid silly and pointless geoblocking devices drive another stake through the heart of poor old honest-to-God, bricks-and-mortar, mum-and-Dad battlers like er, Sky and Telecom! Their latest legal sabre-rattling, despite what their well-paid lawyers might argue, is risible and ineffectual. The spirit of Ned Ludd is alive and well.

I know: a bit of fiddling with tax legislation and some stern words will soon reverse this tide of information they call the internet.
I know – a bit of fiddling with tax legislation and some stern words with Amazon will soon reverse this tide of information and choice they call the internet.

But…we still have a big problem. An awful lot of Kiwis are employed in retail, and they can’t all just switch to selling coffee and hopefully pushing their main product on the side, as many a bookshop has now done. And a declining tax take is bad news for an ageing population relying on pricey healthcare. There are some radical ideas out there about tax alternatives, which lay waste to tired old left and right shibboleths with equal force. I’ll discuss these in a later blog.

As for poor benighted Kiwi retail, some sectors may never recover (books, DVDs); while others, such as clothing, will have to leave the CBD to coffee shops, restaurants and pubs, and come up with more creative ways of preserving their industry. Perhaps our future is just to get drunker and fatter on the money we have saved on our online purchases.