School Choice Is Good Politics in New Zealand

Published July 1, 2005

An education policy that leans toward giving parents their choice of schools and schools control of their finances and curricula has been released by New Zealand’s leading opposition party in the build-up to the country’s general election to be held this year.

The National Party’s school choice advocacy contrasts boldly with the position of the current Labour Party government. That contrast, along with National’s other policies, seems to have hit a note with voters: A National Business Review-Phillips Fox poll, conducted by UMR Research and published in early June, put National ahead of the government for the first time. The election date has not yet been announced, but by law it must be held before September 25.

National has been keen to play up its education differences with Labour, using large, colorful campaign billboards appearing in June proclaiming, “Which school? You decide” above a photo of a smiling National leader, Don Brash, and “We decide” above a grim-looking Prime Minister Helen Clark.

National’s policy contains several school choice initiatives that were part of the market-oriented Tomorrow’s Schools program implemented in1989 initiatives that have since been dumped under political and union pressure. It also includes innovative new proposals, including one to allow successful public schools to expand and take over less successful neighboring ones.

Though the policy doesn’t provide full school choice, it is seen as a welcome step in a sector that over the past 15 years has slowly seen the generally successful initiatives of Tomorrow’s Schools cut back by successive administrations.

Research Shows Proof

Detailed research, released in late May by the Maxim Institute, an education freedom organization, made national headlines, revealing 84 percent of parents believe individual schools should be allowed to teach their community’s positive values, and 79 percent believe schools should be free to offer alternative examinations.

In June, the country’s largest newspaper, the Auckland-based New Zealand Herald, released a poll finding 43.8 percent of those surveyed believed education is worse now than when the government took power two terms ago in 1999, and that education was the third most important election issue, behind taxes and health.

Parents Want Choices

Parent behavior seems to indicate choice is wanted now as strongly as ever. The number of parents going to great lengths–including moving or lying about their address to get into “popular” school zones–has become a recurring story each school year.

Catholic schools continue to expand as growing numbers of non-Catholic parents look to get their children into parochial schools–a further sign of parental demand for education alternatives.

Recent student performance data back up parents’ support for choice. Ministry of Education data from 2003 show that Maori students (New Zealand’s indigenous people, who are over-represented in education failure statistics) are five times more likely to leave secondary school with the top qualification if they have been educated in a private school.

In a 2003 National Business Review poll, conducted by UMR Research, 63 percent of Maori surveyed said they thought private education was better than public education.

Parents Would Make Decisions

When the National Party released its policy statement in April, the New Zealand Herald argued in an editorial that the proposal would put public education “back on track,” and Newstalk ZB, a national radio station, gave it extensive and supportive coverage on a morning show.

Norman LaRocque, policy advisor to the Education Forum, a leading New Zealand school choice advocacy organization, said the most heartening aspect of the National Party’s proposed policy was that it would “shift the focus of decision-making from a cabal of teacher union leaders to where it truly belongs and has been shown to get the best results–families and education professionals.”

He said the policy had all the ingredients needed to provide real improvements in teacher quality, school management, and learning outcomes.

In addition to the proposed policy, LaRocque said, ongoing work from several education and business advocacy organizations has helped promote the benefits of school choice for New Zealand.

Teacher Unions Condemn Plan

“The activities of everyday families up and down the country in looking for education alternatives make it clear that school choice policies are just what they need to escape the narrow confines of the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ system,” LaRocque said.

Joy Quigley, executive director of Independent Schools of New Zealand, described the policy as pragmatic, non-politicized, and built around children’s needs. She said it would help reverse New Zealand’s decline in the rankings for education and economic standards listed annually by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Teacher unions, however, condemned the policy.

The head of the secondary school teachers’ union, the Post Primary Teachers Association, claimed the policy’s calls for parental choice and education excellence really meant privatization, and that the National Party intended for the few schools termed “excellent” to get all the resources while leaving the rest to struggle.

American Experiments Criticized

The primary school teachers’ union said overseas experiments with vouchers–most notably in the United States–had failed.

“Vouchers are a device governments use to privatize education,” union president Colin Tarr said in a statement.

The governing Labour Party, with several former teachers in its cabinet, reacted with scorn to the National Party’s policy, saying it had spent “the last five years rebuilding the state school system after National’s decade of neglect and failed policies.” However, it was the Labour Party that wrote the Tomorrow’s Schools legislation in the late 1980s.

In other countries, support for school choice policies spans the political spectrum, with parties similar to New Zealand’s governing party in favor. In Britain, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair made choice and self-management policies a key component of his education platform in Britain’s general election this year. In the United States, some Democrats have supported expanding some forms of choice such as charter schools–essentially the same as National’s proposal for self-managing schools.

Parents’ Choices Limited

New Zealand does have some school choice, but only in the early childhood and post-secondary sectors.

Kate Ormsby, an accountant for a property development company in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, said her experience in choosing a suitable early childcare center for her daughter highlighted the value of giving parents control over where their children are educated.

“It infuriates me that under current policies I won’t have that choice when Tui gets to primary school,” Ormsby said. “It’s also amusing to see parents who say they do not support school choice taking a very active role in deciding which childcare center would be best for their pre-schoolers.

“Choice is really important. Parents know what’s best for their children and should have the right to make those decisions. They just need the relevant information to base their decisions on.”

Although National’s policy captured headlines and the attention of families like the Ormsbys when it was released in April, analysts say it is unlikely to be an election decider for voters. However, it has set the ground for a heightened school choice debate between politicians, educators, and families.

Adam Shelton ([email protected]) is a communications consultant to the Education Forum.