Worker co-ops and Charter Schools

Critics argue that charter schools will damage the education system in NZ. These arguments are predominantly raised by those of the political left, and in particular, Teachers Unions.

The NZ PPTA considers that there is no evidence to support importing the charter school model into NZ Education. Moreover, that the current legislation allows for parents to set up their own schools, if they are dissatisfied with their local school, provided they have at least 21 students enrolled. 

I asked the PPTA (via Twitter) if teachers were able to run a charter school as a worker co-operative; they replied that the legislation did not appear to allow for this.

I then sent an email to Hon. Hekia Parata and asked:

Does the legislation for Charter Schools allow for the possibility of teachers managing a charter school as a workers co-op? If not, why not?

I received the following reply:

The legislation (s158A Education Act 1989) requires the sponsor of a Partnership School to be a body corporate. Any workers or teachers co-operative would therefore have to be incorporated in some way before it could put forward a proposal to become the sponsor of a Partnership School.

During the Third reading of the Bill, Metiria Turei, Leader of the Greens stated that charter schools have no future in this country should there be a change in government.

This sentiment is also shared by the NZ Labour Party.

If Unions and those of the political left are movements symbolic of bringing an end to bossism, i.e. where workers take control of the means of production; then why on earth are they not advocating for the legislation to incorporate workers cooperatives, rather than pushing for state owned and managed institutions?

This is actually an opportunity for teachers to be freed from the hierarchical systems of institutional education and to bring about a fair and equitable workspace for the teachers and their students.

Even in a market based theory, schools run for profit are less likely to obtain the students necessary to keep the school going if Teacher/Worker co-operatives are able to provide a better educational experience for their students. This competition is good for students because in a workers co-operative, teachers would stake their livelihoods on ensuring the success of the school which depends on the success of the students. It means that teacher co-operative schools would have registered teachers. Although it would mean an end to teachers unions, and perhaps that is a reason why the Unions may not persist along the lines of encouraging workers co-operatives (note: this is a purely speculative comment).

Moreover, Labour and the Greens could also advocate for a proper oversight process to protect the students.

Sure the overseas models have had some poor results and I appreciate that there are some real issues in NZ with the handling of the implementation of charter schools and that the legislation must be improved to better protect the students.

I consider that we should focus on how we can improve the education experience for students and resist the temptation to  measure students against an arbitrary standard suggestive that students are homogeneous entities lacking diversity in their background, skills or knowledge.  We must encourage innovative strategies and move away from a ‘state knows best’ narrative.

The War on Kids documentary points out that while we have conducted many studies on education, there are no studies that show that compulsory education is the best way to impart the necessary skills and knowledge on children to assist them to lead happy and productive lives. Lets not just dismiss the idea of the charter school model, but look at ways of improving it.



4 thoughts on “Worker co-ops and Charter Schools

  1. Great post. Would just add that, first, workers’ co-ops needn’t spell the end of teachers’ unions. Union co-ops, as developed by the US steelworkers’ union, combine the standard co-op structure with a board, run by the union and sitting within the co-op, which represents workers’ interests. And second, there are reasons to oppose charter schools beyond those mentioned; specifically, they atomise the school system and make it harder for schools to learn from each other. Cathy Wylie in her book Vital Connections makes the point that we should be doing more to join up the school system, not further break it up.


    1. Thanks Max. Although, I don’t see why teachers would need a union if they are in control of their working conditions, no bosses etc. But thats good to know that if the Unions are worried about becoming irrelevant, that there are examples and roles for Unions in a workers co-op future.

      Im not convinced (yet) that charter schools would atomise the school system in NZ if we improved upon the models we used here and even if they do whether that would be a bad thing.

      I feel like the market based theory would promote competition, so the poor performing schools would necessarily have to engage with the better performing schools or the school will fail as parents withdraw their children. I note however, that there is a risk of opacity and parents not knowing how badly a school is doing (I read an article on this yesterday, where parents (in the US) turned up to find the school closed, but I cannot find the link!) but this is precisely an argument for having charters in NZ subject to proper oversight.


  2. Very interesting article. It is clear that there are multiple stakeholders and interested parties in this debate: teachers, unions, parents, government, the left, the right, school administrators, and most importantly, the children themselves. Maybe also potential employers and the people who foot the bill, the tax payers. Who else cares?

    Each one of these is looking out for their particular interests. Which is normal. It is obvious also that NOT ONE of these can imagine a solution that is wholesome and inclusive while working from their own particular view of the universe.

    What we need here is a joint, inclusive, multifaceted deliberation on what it would take to organize charter schools so they represent a net significant progress for NZ. Or we could take this at the next level and resolve this question instead: what is the best educational system NZ can create for itself given its opportunities and constraints?

    Some may say that this is unsolvable, that this is a wicked problem. Not true.

    Since the advent of e-Deliberation, a full, focused summit to collaboratively deliberate such questions from multiple perspectives in tandem and in integration is possible. The e-Deliberation process uses a consent-based decision making process, ensuring that minority views are given a voice and examined, and that the strategy outcomes are robust, supported and effective. The summit can be online, in person, of a mix of both. We’d love to assist here.

    Jean-Daniel Cusin


  3. I noticed you broadly subscribe to an Anarcho-Syndicalist perspective, over on Mark Hubbard’s site. I do as well, but I think on this issue you should re-consider your views in some ways.

    As I see it the charter schools movement is an attack on public education (funding), and should be opposed on this basis. I will substantiate better why that is the case further on. I don’t think the question of the ideal structure for a school system is really pertinent to the question here because of this. We live in a state capitalist economy, which is why funding for public education must come from the state in this instance, and it is also part of the reason for the existence of a teachers union. Despite this structure, and the fact that teaching is regulated through a top down structure (the ministry of education), I also think that its clear that teachers play themselves a fairly substantial role in controlling their employment, they have substantial input into the curriculum, they have a reasonable amount of autonomy in decision making in schools, and its important that a great majority of people in education have at least previously worked in a classroom. In fact I think that schools operate as one of the more self governing institutions of the entire economy. I think this could be substantiated, though I am just going to assert it if that is acceptable.

    In fact I believe that the ‘charter’ part of the ‘charter schools’ movement is largely beside the point (to the movement) and the main thing is the privatisation of the education system (with state funding). This is also the basis the teachers unions are opposed in fact. But I suggest its mostly to make schools run profitably, and reduce the balance sheet cost of education to the state (that’s the intent).

    Unfortunately public education is not a for-profit venture, it can not be run profitably and available to the whole public. It is not hard to find evidence leading to this conclusion, if public education was a profitable venture then businesses would surely be created which provide public education (not the elite private school education which we do see) in competition with the state sector. But this is seen nowhere, and everywhere that public education is done it is funded by the state. This appears to be inevitable in a state capitalist (or state communist) system. On the other hand it can be profitable to provide education to the more wealthy, but you need to provide something on top of the public education system. This is why wealthy elite schools tend to support the suggestion that they provide a higher quality of education, or maybe just provide better opportunities to those educated there. This may or may not be factually based, but there is certainly a mytho’s of private education being superior (if expensive).

    Because we don’t find that a for-profit education system is possible what we would expect is that charter school systems tend to shift the availability of education from broad base towards a more wealthy base. The charter schools which are set-up to provide for the less well off will tend to fare worse financially. Because of this the composition of education funding shifts and becomes a different composition of the more broad based public education and the more wealth based charter schools funding for the wealthy (and providing elite education). So the adoption of charter schools shifts broad based public funding to funding for more wealthy sectors (while reducing funding for broad based education). This is also shown by many studies, so what we might reasonably expect to happen has been observed to happen in practise.

    Probably I should explain in slightly more detail how this works, but what we will (and have) seen is that the more wealthy parents will shift their children to particular schools (this is sometimes called white flight, and its real) so the resulting system will see a division into wealthy and non-wealthy schools. The non-wealthy schools will find it harder to get funding (because the parents using them simply have less money), and the wealthy schools will find it easier to get funding. Since there is some financial efficiency in pooling resources, the division between wealthy and non-wealthy schools will be greater. If you can discourage to some extent the flight, or simply to compensate for the disparity with subsidies, will be able to subsidise the provision of education to the less financially well off.

    On the other hand I don’t find much truth to the notion that financial efficiency (education being profitably run, based on available funds) is connected with the quality of education provided. It seems more simple to understand that the more money a school has access to the better it will perform in education. This would definitely require a higher public subsidy to provide education to the less well off. Or put another way its much easier to get more money out of parents of more wealthy children to fund a schools various activities. On this basis I don’t think that running education more as a cooperative or other similar venture will make the broadly focused institutions significantly more profitable, and the profitability will depend on their ability to cater to elite parents in the same way that a private school does. Then as I see it the charter schools movement is a straight forward attempt to reduce the financial cost of public education to the state, and it should be opposed on this basis.

    It also seems pertinent that the notion is a top-down mandate, nobody outside of the elite political class ever thought it was a problem that schools had a public curriculum, or provided public qualifications. Most people have literally no idea what the policy is about without doing a fairly significant research project because the concept and the ‘issues’ raised are simply imperceptible to them.


Comments are closed.