Charter schools in this country are still too new to allow any firm conclusions about their potential, says a new book that looks abroad for answers and suggests that inequities across schools could increase under such a system unless adequate safeguards are put in place.
When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale examines the history of school reform in New Zealand, an island nation with 3.6 million people, roughly the same as South Carolina.
In 1989, the New Zealand government abolished the national department of education and turned control of the country’s nearly 2,700 primary and secondary schools over to locally elected boards of trustees, controlled by parents. Then, in 1991, a newly elected government abolished neighborhood enrollment zones and allowed parents to choose among schools, forcing schools to compete in an educational marketplace.
“In a sense, you can say that New Zealand is an entire country of conversion charters,” said Edward B. Fiske, a former New York Times reporter who wrote the book with his wife, Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public-policy studies and economics at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
The authors could not determine whether the changes had improved student achievement in New Zealand because the country lacks a national testing system. But after a decade, parental choice was widely accepted as appropriate, they found, and New Zealanders preferred the decentralized structure to the bureaucratic system it replaced.
But the authors also found that many parents, especially those with low incomes, were not in a position to exercise choice, either because no alternative options existed where they lived or because they could not afford the transportation, student fees, and other costs associated with enrolling in a desirable school.
As a result, enrollment patterns in New Zealand became increasingly stratified, Mr. Fiske and Ms. Ladd found, based on an analysis of national census data from 1991 and 1996. The data show that minority students—primarily Maoris and Pacific Islanders—became increasingly concentrated in schools serving high proportions of minority and low-income students.
The authors found that parents tended to judge a school’s quality based on the socioeconomic and racial mix of students. As a result, schools with concentrations of poor and minority students on average became smaller, and ethnic minorities became increasingly concentrated in them.
The situation was exacerbated, the book concludes, because schools that had more applicants than spaces were allowed to set their own admissions criteria. Such schools essentially hand-picked the more affluent and high-achieving students, worsening the disparities.
“If you end up with schools at the bottom with greater concentrations than in the past of struggling students, that’s a problem,” Ms. Ladd argued.
Problems at the Bottom
Choice and competition also exacerbated the problems of schools at the bottom, which lacked the capacity to improve, the authors say. By the end of the 1990s, the New Zealand government had concluded that as many as 25 percent of all schools were unable to handle their new management responsibilities and were unable to compete effectively.
Instead, the authors suggest, many of those schools appeared to be stuck in a downward spiral—the more students left, the fewer resources they had, and the less attractive and effective they became. New Zealand has no good mechanism for closing failing schools, however, or for creating a supply of new ones.
“You shouldn’t expect choice to solve the problems of schools serving the most disadvantaged students,” Ms. Ladd contended.
Mr. Fiske said the book is not an argument against school choice, competition, and self-governance, all of which he says might be desirable. “What we’re trying to say is, if you want to go down this road—and there are some good reasons to do it—then there are some safeguards you’ve got to build in,” he said.
Some researchers on school choice warned against drawing too many lessons from New Zealand’s governance changes.
“What New Zealand has done is relax some of the restricting force of attendance zones, and that’s probably a good thing,” said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City. “But it has none of the essential components of a charter or choice system,” including the ability to create a supply of new schools or to hire and fire teachers. (Teachers in New Zealand work under a national employment contract.)
“All comparisons across countries involve some differences,” he said, “but these are central as far as an extrapolation, or comparison, to charter or choice systems in the United States.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Book Profiles System of School Choice In New Zealand