Saturday, 31 December 2011

Farewell 2011

Well 2011 has come and now it has gone. Key's strategy of timing the election to coincide with the Rugby World Cup worked and analysis of the dire straits our economy is actually in, were pushed to the back pages of our dailies as stories of rugby teams and our collective fascination with odd shaped balls and cauliflower ears took over.

The year ends with the country in a worse state than Treasury forecast. Worse is to come, as 2012 slides towards the second recession in three years. Virtually everything the Key government has done has made matters worse. In reality Key promises much but delivers little, he is a comfortable opportunist possessed of an affable shallow charm and a fecal version of the midas touch.

While Key soft peddles on green values, he is certainly in to recycling. We are seeing a recycling of old ideas - charter schools - the putting of state education out for tender to the private sector, privatisation of prisons, benefit cuts, cuts to the public service, deregulation and tax cuts for the rich. Now the greatest piece of recycling - the privatisation of state assets. All of this with the aim of narrowing the wage gap with Australia and reversing the decline of our economy. It appears that Captain Key's plan for New Zealand not being wrecked by the iceberg of the global recession, is rather than steering around the iceberg, is to steer full steam ahead onto it.

What we can expect is for things for the bulk of New Zealanders to get worse. But will our mainstream media pick it up? As our SOE's are privatised, expect the cost of power to go up. As people have less money in their pockets, they will have less money to spend and businesses will go bust. Expect more diversionary policies - going hard on crime (ooh look shop lifters might be stealing food, but we've increased the penalties for theft) etc, etc. In other words going hard on the effects of poverty - not preventing poverty itself. The OECD's latest report on rising inequality finds the bottom 30% with just 3% of our wealth, while the top third commands 75%. With money comes the power to sway governments to protect tax privileges and loopholes. Notice how Key whined about poverty and inequality when first campaigning for office in 2007-2008, but this year both he and his poodle media were practically silent on it. In reality under Key the richest people in NZ increased their wealth by 20% over the past year, to $45.2 billion. That translates to an amazing 35% of NZ’s yearly GDP owned by 150 people. But we didn’t have 20% economic growth in 2010. We didn’t even have 2% growth. There will be more poverty and even more children will face hunger, poor housing and the health effects that flow from this.

While domestic violence is on the increase as are the sizes of queues outside foodbanks, Key like a modern Ceasar used the distraction of the rugby Colosseum, to distract people from the fact that New Zealand is on life support, and that in reality the only people to benefit under National are people like Key himself. With the smokescreen of rugby New Zealanders were seduced into the fact that National were actually doing something for New Zealand.

Not only has National presided over the sale of our state assets, they have also eroded many of our civil liberties and free trial rights. It was repugnant to witness a government almost dispose of our cherished right to silence without demur. We have lost the right to counsel of choice for many charges (a strange contradiction for a party that prides itself on the right of people to choose)and we have lost the right to elect trial by jury for a number of offences, all in the name of efficiency.

Weirdly we have also seen in 2011 amazing examples of "double speak" aka "pissing on our backs and telling us it's raining." Unemployment is a classic example. Key campaigned in 2008 about reducing unemployment (it has grown from 95,000 to over 157,000), narrowing the wage gap with Australia (it has grown not reduced). Key chided Labour for the fact that 33,000 people had left our shores for Australia, yet under his leadership that figure has now grown to over 100,000. In addition we now have over 200,000 children living in poverty. On the 3rd of November 2011 Key declared that an increase in unemployment was proof that National’s policies were working. I quote from the Herald:

“Prime Minister John Key has reacted to unemployment figures released this morning, saying more people are seeking work, and "confidence is coming back".
The figures showed the jobless rate unexpectedly rose in the third quarter, with little evidence the start of the Rugby World Cup drove an increase in casual workers to service the wave of tourists.
The unemployment rate rose to 6.6 per cent in the three months ended September 30 from 6.5 per cent in the June quarter, according to Statistics New Zealand's Household Labour Force Survey.”

"More people are seeking work" and this is good? What planet is he on? The only reason more people are now seeking work, is that more people are out of work!

One of the most prescient moments for me came when I was in Dannevirke several days out from the election. I was having a pie at a cafe. The owner came over and started talking to me. "Labour hasn't got a chance" he said. "Why do you say that? We have plans for the future, national super is unaffordable in the long term and only Labour is planning for that. What about capital gains tax and the need to broaden our tax base? Labour has plans our long term future, National has nothing." The shop keeper's eye glazed over, "Yeah, but John Key knows what he's doing, he's a millionaire." "True", I said, "But are you saying that because he has lot's of money, he know's how to handle an economy?" "Yep" came the reply. "So", I said, "You'd vote for Bernie Madoff the billionaire fraudster?" Again the eyes glazed over, "Yeah but Key's a millionaire."

I tried another strategy, "How's your business going?" It turns out that this man's business was in the crap and he closes shop for several months of the year and props it up by working in the mines in Australia. "Doesn't that tell you something - if your local economy is so stuffed, that you have to find work in another country to prop up your business?" Again it was to no effect. Effectively this individual had been subjected to a charm offensive from a political party promoting a brand based upon a man as opposed to policies and for 3 years there has been minimal challenge in the media to that brand.

So 2011 for me represents the apotheosis of a failed capitalism that is eating itself. We are in the shit because of the free market and the lack of regulation of the international banking sector. A compliant media owned by large corporate interests have feted as our economic messiah a millionaire who made his money feeding off the extravagance of the very sector that dropped us into the shit in the first place.

2012 is the year of the Winter Olympics. Key should lead a New Zealand tabogganing team - his ability to drive New Zealand downhill at speed, must mean we have a sure chance of a gold.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Charter Schools - The Education of Children Used As Deal Maker

Former National cabinet minister, new Act member and sole ACT MP John Banks has won a concession that John Key will allow some New Zealand children to be subjected to the charter school experiment as part of his deal to assist National with its programme of forcing a free market agenda upon New Zealand.

Considering neither National or ACT campaigned on charter schools a number of people are asking, "What are charter schools and do they work?"

Worryingly I have just heard the Prime Minister on Radio New Zealand respond to a journalist's question about not putting this before the electorate, with words to the effect, "Well do you think that the average voter will actually care if with all the hundreds of state schools in New Zealand, if we make a couple of them charter schools?" To my mind this speaks of an callous indifference to the welfare of the children he is subjecting to being John Banks' guinea pigs.

First charter schools are publicly-funded private schools. They are primary or secondary schools that receive public money but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school's charter.

Do they work? From my reading of evaluation research and several articles I believe that charter schools don't outperform public schools in any meaningful way. Interestingly the New Zealand Business Roundtable has a link on its website to this article which summarises the research concisely: "The evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research group that matched more than 3,000 students from the choice program and from regular public schools, found that pupils in the choice program generally had “achievement growth rates that are comparable” to similar Milwaukee public-school students. This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away."(Charles Murray, Perspectives: Issue 368 Why Charter Schools Fail the Test, 19 May 2010).

There seems to be a preoccupation with testing in charter schools. That is as success is measured by children meeting predetermined test markers, processes are put in place to ensure the schools accept only those children who will perform. This has led to allegations of "cherry picking."

Ross Barkan on 21 July 2011 wrote an article highlighting several problems entitled, "Bronx Charter School's Failure Highlights Failure of Charter Schools": "As a charter school, Academic Leadership is required by New York state law to admit students through a random lottery. But multiple parents and staff members described a process designed by the school’s director to weed out low-performing students.

Four parents who tried to enroll their children at Academic Leadership, an elementary school, this year or last year said that school employees tested their children before deciding whether or not to accept them."

This article reveals several of the problems inherent in the charter-school model. One is that a randomised lottery is supposed to determine who goes to a charter school. Since when did access to education become a game of chance? One might think that lotteries, at least, must be fair, but why should the educational futures of small children — who already hail from the economic underclass because wealthier areas tend to keep charters out of their school districts—now hang in the balance of one right or wrong selection from lottery box?

Further, the state school system is already struggling. Now it appears that state schools who take allcomers regardless of ability - to give them their entitlement - a free education; are going to have precious funds siphoned away to fund charter schools when the international research shows that despite promising much in fact deliver little.

Earlier this year John Key announced in a public meeting in Masterton that funding was going to be cut for the Wairarapa's flagship last chance school Ohorere Student Transition Programme. That school has a proven track record with an 85 percent success rate at taking troubled young children and getting back on track to return to and complete mainstream education. It cost just $150,000 a year to run (the same prices as 10 minutes of fireworks used to open the Rugby World Cup). It has ERO report after ERO report congratulating the school on its success. It is shameful that a school which has a proven record of success with some of the children from the poorest levels of our communities, is going to be binned when Mr Key can find millions of dollars to plough into charter schools, just to make a deal with a former National Party cabinet minister, when the bulk of research suggests charter schools are a failure.