Charter schools have cost taxpayers $63 million in operational funding since 2015. Closing them down could add another $12m to the price of the educational experiment.

All 12 charter schools currently open have opted to transition to a new model rather than close the doors to their combined 1300 students.

Ten have applied to become designated character schools, and two have applied to become state-integrated schools. They will find out if their applications have been successful late July.

Unsuccessful applicants will have their contracts terminated. A cabinet paper indicates up to $1 million per school should be set aside for school closure but says further costs could be incurred relocating students.

Property related costs are also expected if the government needs to take over leases, or if new state school buildings are required to house students moving to state schools.

When in opposition the current Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, criticised issues with charter school contracts.

“In fact, charter schools could end up getting more money in the event they are closed early because the contracts allow them to claim committed costs.”

The comment was made after a charter school in Whangaruru, Northland, set up with $5.2 million in taxpayer funds, was closed down. The contract between the trust running the school and the government did not specify whether the 81-hectare farm purchased by the school would become government property if the school was closed.

“Whangaruru has effectively been told; set up a school, if it doesn’t work out you’ll get a free farm,” Chris Hipkins says in a press release in 2015.

Three years on The Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said negotiations regarding the farm were ongoing and confidential.

When asked if any similar contract issues had been identified for the 12 charter schools applying to transition to another model Casey said contract discussions taking place are confidential. 

She said school property is one of the factors considered in the decision process. Also considered is the impact the school will have on the surrounding schools’ rolls, the ongoing cost to the Government and if the designated character meets the criteria set out in the Education Act. The character school has to offer the students a significantly different education to state schools.

Designated character schools, the status 10 charter schools have applied for, means property is owned by the government. State-integrated school status, which Tūranga Tangata Rite in Gisborne and Te Kura Māori o Waatea in Māngere have applied for remain privately owned.

Unlike charter schools, both designated character and state integrated schools must teach the New Zealand Curriculum, employ registered teachers, and pay teachers the collectively agreed rate.

“People ask questions around the fact a lot of ministers in this government are closely related to the schools. Willie Jackson runs one, Peeni Henare’s wife teaches at one. Kelvin Davis has a number of relatives who attend Te Kāpehu Whetū, so there is a question of – is there favouritism?”

Villa Education Trust own two Auckland charter schools. CEO Karen Poole said she is hopeful the school teachers won’t need to take a pay cut if their transition application it approved.

“We do currently pay above the collective agreement, but there has been indications we will be able to discuss that when we enter into contracts with the government. Nothing’s finalised.”

Per student funding is also higher for charter schools: 2016 figures from the Ministry of Education show South Auckland Middle School run by Villa Education Trust received $1.8m in operational funding in 2016 for its 148 students. This amounted to $12,183 per student compared to the Ministry of Education’s 2016 average of $7,451 funding per student for all schools.

The cabinet paper discussing the process for removing charter schools notes: “Despite per student funding rates higher than many public schools, there is limited evidence that the charter schools model allows for innovations beyond that of equivalent public school.”

Villa Education Trust’s schools would normally be marketing to attract new students, but Poole said they were in “limbo” at present.

“We can’t be promising students school options when we don’t know what we will be doing.”

The Education Act gives the Minister of Education “absolute discretion” to refuse to establish a designated character school.

Act Party leader David Seymour described the transition process as haphazard.

“It is a kangaroo court isn’t it. At no time have they given criteria that anyone can work out whether a school is going to qualify or not.

“People ask questions around the fact a lot of ministers in this government are closely related to the schools. Willie Jackson runs one, Peeni Henare’s wife teaches at one. Kelvin Davis has a number of relatives who attend Te Kāpehu Whetū, so there is a question of – is there favouritism?”

Labour’s MP for Te Tai Tokerau and associate minister of education, Kelvin Davis, said he would resign if two charter schools in Northalnd,  Te Kura Hourua O Whangārei and Te Kāpehu Whetū, were closed down.

The Ministry of Education supplied the following figures for annual operational spending on charter schools:

2018 – $19,293,118

2017 – $16,800,000

2016 – $13,074,346

2015 – $13,852,704

Until final decisions on transition applications are made in late July an advisory group will monitor the performance of charter schools. This group replaces an authorisation board led by former Act Party president Catherine Isaac, which resigned en masse in February.

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