Friday, May 31, 2013

A response to Al Nisbet

I have no idea where this originates but it turned up on Bryan Bruce's FB page, and he in turn traced it to someone called Alison Withers. So whoever did this, thanks. We think it speaks for itself.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Food in Schools Bingo

And the winner is......the Food and Grocery Council.

National has finally been shamed into doing something about the fact that many kids in New Zealand are turning up to school hungry. The Children's Commissioner's recommendation for food in schools and the evident (even to National) public support for Mana's Feed the Kids Bill meant that the problem couldn't be ignored. Despite blathering about opportunity opportunistically during the 2008 election, nothing National has done since coming to office has alleviated the problem of kids going hungry. Indeed, National's enthusiasm for not signing people up to benefits or kicking them off for some real or imagined transgression means that more kids are likely to be going without.

So finally buckling under pressure, today comes the announcement that National will partner with a couple of large corporates to provide food in schools for the needy. Signalling its reluctance to anything but the minimum, the government has budgeted $9.5 million over 5 years to support food in schools. Note this is the same government that found $19 million to fund charter schools, and has no end of cash to throw at the Novopay system. 

In a move "commended" by the Food and Grocery Council the government has announced it will stump up half(!!) the money required for a 5 year programme to enable Fonterra and Sanitarium to roll out the KickStart programme from 2 days per week to 5. This opportunity to market to the next generation of consumers has been whitewashed by the government as harnessing the energy of the corporate sector. From the Food and Grocery Council, here's the list of corporates that have been energised into feeding these impressionable young consumers:
  • George Weston Foods, the makers of Tip Top Bread. GWF are an Australian company. Their website features a lot of well-dressed, well fed white people.
  • Goodman Fielder, another bread supplier. Advertises itself as Australasia's largest food manufacturer.
  • Tasti products. Based in Te Atatu, manufacturers of fatty snack bars.
  • Abe's Bagels. OK, they're a cool NZ company and bagels are one of our favourite breakfast foods.
  • Harroways. Another New Zealand company specialising in oatmeal products.
  • Then we get to the rather less likeable multi-nationals including GlaxoSmithKline, the makers of Ribena, found to have falsely claimed higher levels of Vitamin C in Ribena than actually existed; Nestles. Still getting caught up in baby formula scandals, Nestle have also been sprung putting palm oil in chocolate and using horsemeat in their pre-cooked meals; and Colgate-Palmolive, another prodigious user of palm oil.
The argument is that if kids are getting fed it's OK. Well the problem is the devil is in the detail, and we have no detail. Is delivery going to be consistent across the whole country? Is food going to be available to all-comers in decile 1-4 schools as is currently the case with breakfast programmes? What nutritional standards will be put in place to ensure kids aren't fed sugary, fatty junk? And what happens when one of these corporates decides they'd rather sponsor a TV cooking programme, which they are perfectly entitled to do.

All in all, this is a lame and cheap response to a serious issue. It shows once again that National has no vision about what sort of country New Zealand could be in 20 years time, and has no clue about anything aside from paying back its corporate political supporters. It's the policy equivalent of a packet of crisps - the packing is more substantial than anything inside.     

Friday, May 17, 2013

Budget 2013: equity through whiteware

If Budget 2012 is remembered chiefly for taxing paperboys, then Budget 2013 will be remembered (we predict) not so much for penny-pinching austerity but for the government's attempts to alleviate child poverty, socioeconomic inequality and possibly Auckland's housing crisis by enabling the poorest among us to purchase (drum roll...) whiteware!

This bold move, calculated no doubt to fob off thankless detractors who would suggest the budget amounts to little more than another step in the privatisation of public services, is carefully hidden in the budget so as not to attract the attention it undoubtedly deserves: such a shame because here, under "Better Public Services" it specifically states the budget includes "A whiteware procurement programme to enable beneficiaries to purchase new appliances under warranty using Ministry of Social Development repayable grants." There's no costing but of course it's not going to cost the government anything because the money has to be repaid. By people on benefits. Who probably move a lot.  Or are homeless.

A grateful beneficiary checks the stain of poverty has gone
OK, so it's possible some of the technical aspects haven't been thought through terribly well, but the point is this: addressing inequality means giving all citizens the same opportunity to purchase dishwashers and clothes dryers as their peers. Equity through whiteware!

There can be no doubt this brave vision has confused the government's enemies, obsessed as they are with raising living standards for those at the bottom by improving incomes and providing decent job opportunities (see CPAG's budget assessment here). Because who could argue with the concept of whiteware for all? 

It's not at all clear why enabling beneficiaries to borrow money to purchase whiteware is a better public service but much about this policy is mysterious. Like, for example, why on earth does anyone think this a practical measure to tackle poverty? Is this just a bone for Fisher and Paykel? Is Bill English really determined to share the love, even if beneficiaries have to borrow against their meagre incomes to do so? We're sure there's a greater social and economic vision at work here, but at the moment this budget item seems as pointless as that blinking button on the washing machine.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Working our way back to recovery?

Last week, lost in the media frenzy surrounding Aaron Gilmore, Statistics New Zealand announced that as of March unemployment had reached its lowest level for 3 years. This of course has been taken as further evidence that the economy is improving by all the usual suspects and the government. Glorious Leader Minister of MoBIE, Steven Joyce, perhaps optimistically, appears to still believe the economy will create 170,000 jobs by 2015. Whew! For a while there it looked like all those beneficiaries being chucked off welfare might have to sit on Queen Street and beg.

Oh, they are? What's going on?

For a start, saying New Zealand has the lowest unemployment rate for three years isn't saying much. This long drawn out slump is now into its 6th year. Graph 1 shows the unemployment rate going back to 2000 (for no particular reason). In 2000 New Zealand was emerging from a short but quite brutal recession. Note that thereafter unemployment fell slowly but steadily through most of the 2000s till it started to rise again in early 2008. The problem is that 'the lowest unemployment for three years' is only taking us back to where we were in 2009, and unemployment shows no sign of any long-term downward trend as happened from 2000 onwards. (All data from Statistics New Zealand. Graphs include the latest Household Labour Force Survey data as at March 2013.)


The news is worse for young people. Graph 2 shows the unemployment rate for 15-19 year-olds, and 20-24 year-olds, also going back to 2000. The lowest unemployment for three years is still well above almost anything prior to 2009. And we're betting that sharp drop in March 2013 is not the start of a plummeting unemployment rate for 15-24 years olds.


An interesting labour market phenomenon is that when unemployment is high people just stop looking for work. Many would accept work if it was available otherwise they just appear to give up. These falling rates of labour force participation often account for improved unemployment data (as has been the case recently in New Zealand and the US).
Graph 3 shows labour force participation has steadily declined since 2008. A 2-period moving average has been included to smooth out the seasonal spikey-ness. The latest 'improvement' only puts the labour force participation rate back where it was in - well, actually, 2005.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, we have a Minister of Social Development who, with support from the surplus-obsessed Bill English, is attempting to turf as many people off welfare as is humanly (or perhaps inhumanly) possible. How's it working out for them? The number of Domestic Purposes beneficiaries has been falling, down to 106,000 from about 114,000 in 2011. Hidden away in the HLFS data is a little dataset showing what percentage of different types of household have some or all adults in work, eg childless couples, couples with children, and sole parents. Surprisingly given the apparent triumph with which the Minister announces the falling number of beneficiaries, the percentage of sole parents is work has fallen since 2011(Graph 4). If there are about 170,000 sole parents households, and the number on a benefit has fallen by about 8,000 in the last two years, and the number of sole parents in work has also fallen in the same period, who, and how many, are falling through the gaps? And why does the government continue to be puzzled by persistent and probably deepening child poverty?

Trawling around the beneficiary datasets last week we stumbled on an something that seems odd. We don't have a Theoretical Explanation for this yet, but it raises questions about the 'recovering economy' mantra, and should be raising flags about where all those newly work-tested beneficiaries are supposed to be finding part-time work. One of the statistics MSD collects is the percentage of beneficiaries declaring part-time earnings. So we would expect, given the ENORMOUS pressure beneficiaries have been under to work at least 15 hours per week or die, to see the number declaring part-time earnings to have gone up. But in fact we don't see this, except for some minor quarter-to-quarter variations. But here's a graph going back to 2000 (Graph 5, June figures, all main benefits). The number of beneficiaries declaring earnings from part-time work has been falling since 2005! There were more beneficiaries declaring earnings even in the early 2000s, in a tight labour market. For all the huffing and puffing, the number of beneficiaries declaring earnings from work has barely nudged up. This opens up a whole new set of questions, including: has the economy stopped creating beneficiary-friendly part-time jobs? Is it this lack of part-time work that partly explains the rise in hardship among beneficiary families? We don't know but it's a pretty sure bet Paula Bennett and Bill English don't, either.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Zombies: eating the brains and heart of the education system

A couple of weeks ago I asked a political insider what the Maori party was up to. The response was concise and immediate: waiting to die. However, with the news that ACT's grotesque charter school bill is about to pass unamended with the support of the Maori Party, it seems the insider was overstating the case for life. Rather, they are more like zombies: addled by some mixture of a dream of tino rangitiratanga, confusion about what charter schools will mean for low-income urban Maori, and, presumably, lobbying by the Iwi Education Authority  (whose spokesperson Pem Bird is President of the Maori Party), the Maori Party's parliamentary wing has allowed its life blood to be sucked away in exchange for...what? A bigger bauble? 

Zombie education: New Zealand schools take a hit from another batshit idea.

This is a harsh assessment so perhaps some backfill might be helpful. The charter schools legislation was introduced by ACT (another zombie party) as part of its confidence and supply agreement with National. Briefly, the Bill provides that private entities - iwi groups, Destiny Church, Goldman Sachs etc - can use public money to set up and run private schools. This means less money is available for public schools. The Bill excludes charter schools from any of the usual public accountability including being subject to the Official information Act; charter schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers or follow the national cirriculum, or have any parent representation on the school board. Tellingly, charter schools are to be foisted on low-income areas - no untrained teachers and flakey cirricula for the children of the well-to-do, thanks. Former ACT party president and Welfare Working Group ideologue Catherine Isaac has hilariously described charter schools as being about 'freedom' and 'choice'. Elsewhere and more candidly, Ms Isaac has described charter schools as "an experiment aimed at lifting education outcomes for the bottom 20 per cent of pupils. These schools should be looked on as the R&D arm of the education system."  Got that? When it comes to 'freedom' and 'choice' you don't need evidence. It's enough that poor kids in Christchurch and South Auckland will be subjects in National/ACT's education R&D.

There's no denying that New Zealand has a problem with the high proportion of Maori young men leaving school without qualifications. Some can't even read and write, and many of these in turn end up populating our prisons (about 70% of prisoners are functionally illiterate). The 2007 PISA report found that New Zealand scored higher than any other OECD country in the relationship between socioeconomic background and school performance. Given that Maori and Pacific people are more likely to have low incomes, it is surprising that the Maori Party has not pushed for greater economic equity instead of supporting the cynical Charter School Experiment, wherein many of the subjects will be Maori.

A report (linked above) on the Iwi Education Authority's submission on the charter school Bill quoted Pem Bird as asking where was the accountability for Maori underachievement? The answer, of course, is that in a democracy accountability lies with all of us. It is certainly difficult to see how legislation that removes all the normal accountability is going to be an improvement on a system that is at least subject to the Official Information Act and has elected boards comprising parents and members of the community. Suppose iwi charter schools achieve the same or worse results than state schools? To whom are they accountable for taxpayers' money? 

Maori frustration is understandable but Maori educational underachievement is not new (and just to note here that not all Maori underachieve, and most do OK). It happened in the 1970s but in a time of full employment and readily available jobs, no one much noticed. A 1988 report by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare recommended "investment in urban and rural districts to promote the social and cultural skills of young Maori people and to promote training and employment opportunities for them." This has never happened, and it won't with charter schools, either.

It also seems very odd that the party which has traditionally been so ready to scream about Maori privilege is suddenly so concerned with Maori educational achievement. In the past, initiatives aimed at closing the gap between Maori and Everyone Else have been closed down where possible by various ACT hacks, up to and including the party leader, blathering about 'one law for all' and 'equality before the law'. Suddenly, shelling out money to iwi organisations is OK? No. ACT is using Maori education as a Trojan horse to get corporates into the provision of education and undermine New Zealand's world class education system. Siphoning public money to the private sector via education has been described as 'the big enchilada' for corporate investors.
The CREDO study found that on average charter schools do the same or worse than public schools

So the million dollar question is do charter schools work? Do they pick up lazy public school doofus's and turn them into rocket scientists? The evidence suggests not. A national (US) study by Stanford University's CREDO research unit found about one in five charter schools had better test results than public schools while double that had worse ones. Lack of public accountability has also led to 'serious problems' of mismanagement and profiteering. Where charter schools have achieved better results it is because they have enrolled students already getting above average test scores, have excluded poorer or special needs students, have received additional private money or have been subject to far stricter accountability regimes than anything envisaged by the New Zealand legislation. In New Orleans, a city with a higher proportion of charter schools than anywhere else in the US, there are now serious questions about the ability of disabled students to obtain an education in charter schools (and see here). In general, there is no methodologically sound evidence that charter schools consistently produce the amazing results their proponents claim.

So what might work better? What might we do to address the serious inequalities in outcome between Maori and Pacific children and others? Well, we could start by looking at countries that consistently do well in international studies. In 2009 Finland was ranked 6th for maths, 2nd for science, and 3rd for reading. Countries coming in ahead were from South East Asia. New Zealand ranked well ahead of the US in all three categories. 

The guiding principle in Finnish education is equity - every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn. This means that those who have less shall receive more (see here and here). All children receive free meals in schools, access to healthcare and individualised guidance. Finland invests much more money in early childhood than do either New Zealand or the US, and has low levels of child poverty. This means children are not bringing a bunch of other problems to school. Finnish children do less homework than their peers elsewhere, enjoy more creative classes in school and are not subject to standardised tests as they are in the US and now New Zealand. Teachers are highly skilled and accordingly respected. But most importantly, Finland receives these impressive results within a fully state-funded and organised system. There are no private schools as we understand them, and the few that exist receive state funding and are not allowed to charge fees. So they're not siphoning millions out of the education budget to support a few elites. ALL children are considered important, and all are given an opportunity. Given Finland's success, it is a shame New Zealand is heading in completely the opposite direction.

And to wrap up, there is a broader political economy at play here. Charter schools, like other trendy quick-fixes to social problems, not only fail to address entrenched inequalities, they have used the language of choice and freedom to mask the lack of choice many citizens have in their day-today lives. To paraphrase one commentator, the discourse around charter schools relieves the rest of us 'of any semblence of social responsibility and commitment'. Talk of diversity and democracy by charter school proponents do not address the power and racial inequalities that manifest in the educational underachievement of too many young Maori and Pacific people. It is a shame that is its zombie-fied state, the Maori Party appears to have chosen the interests of corporate investors over its commitment to excellent public education for all.