Kiwi choice

New Zealand transformed its failing school system by instituting choice, says Maurice McTigue, a former Member of Parliament, in Imprimis. Before the change, New Zealand had been spending more on education with worse results. Consultants reported that 70 percent of education spending was going to administration.

Once we heard this, we immediately eliminated all of the Boards of Education in the country. Every single school came under the control of a board of trustees elected by the parents of the children at that school, and by nobody else. We gave schools a block of money based on the number of students that went to them, with no strings attached. At the same time, we told the parents that they had an absolute right to choose where their children would go to school. It is absolutely obnoxious to me that anybody would tell parents that they must send their children to a bad school. We converted 4,500 schools to this new system all on the same day.

Under the new system, parents could spend their education dollars at a public or privately owned school.

Again, everybody predicted that there would be a major exodus of students from the public to the private schools, because the private schools showed an academic advantage of 14 to 15 percent. It didn’t happen, however, because the differential between schools disappeared in about 18-24 months. Why? Because all of a sudden teachers realized that if they lost their students, they would lose their funding; and if they lost their funding, they would lose their jobs.

At the beginning of the change, 85 percent of students went to public schools; that dipped to 84 percent after one year, then rose to 87 percent three years later. New Zealnd students, who’d been “14 or 15 percent below our international peers” in educational attainment now are 14 or 15 percent above, writes McTigue.

Thanks to Bart Ingles for spotting this.

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  1. NZ must have a unique method for calculating administrative expenses. Spending 70% on administration seems to be impossible, so either there is an accounting issue or the gentleman is mis-remembering.

  2. Wow. The stated improvement in only three years is staggering. And I think the key was this: Every single school came under the control of a board of trustees elected by the parents of the children at that school, and by nobody else.

    Maybe mother knows best.

    Since this change occurred in 1989, I thought I’d see if teacher’s pay had increased (as I believe it would in a free market system), decreased, or stayed about the same.

    I tried to find out what happened to teacher’s salaries in New Zealand during that period. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a chart or graph which followed salaries over time. I did find out that the government negotiates with two unions to set the scale for all teachers. This seems to me to be a fatal flaw in the system, as any system which fails to produce extraordinary reward for extraordinary performance will end up driving out the best teachers.

    Who is keeping the local boards from determining how to compensate it’s employees? That would be the New Zealand teachers’ unions, who boast of their success in resisting the move to individual contracts.

    So the success is qualified. Giving local school boards the responsibility of employment without being able to negotiate employee pay seems like a major failure in the feedback loop required to get the best performance.

  3. John from OK says:

    Beware the New Zeelanders. Didn’t they invent the whole language approach?

  4. It would be interesting to see how much of our $ are spent on “administrative” costs in California. One would have to include some costs of school bonds, state and local taxes which go to non-district administrators and I expect lots more carefully hidden costs. Some of our home school plans soak up nearly the full education per student $ on administration.

  5. I’m curious about the “no strings attached” provision. Which parts (or equivalents) were forgotten ? There are a whole raft of Titles that schools must adhere in the US. How many of the diversity, group-hug programs are still required ?

  6. I agree with tcs. Either the 70 percent figure reported is just wrong, or somebody is defining administration very expansively.

  7. For the curious, the NCES Education Finance Statistics Center data is available at

    The most basic breakdown is to look at instructional costs vs. support services vs. non-instructional costs. Any category reflects some definitional decisions. For example, school libraries are categorized as a support service while textbooks are instruction.

    California’s % instructional expenditures are slightly above the national average, although below the levels typically found in the Northeast.

  8. Mike in Texas says:

    Now there’s an interesting concept. Give a block of money to the schools, make sure the educrats can blow it on foolishness and keep it free of ridiculous constraints imposed by politicians. As a teacher this is what I’ve felt we need to do for our schools.

    I noticed there weren’t any demands for accountability or high stakes testing. How will they ensure those lazy teachers are doing their jobs without it (gasp)?

  9. Mike in Texas says:

    I shouldn’t post before I’ve had my coffee. That should say “can’t”

  10. Andy Freeman says:

    > I noticed there weren’t any demands for accountability or high stakes testing. How will they ensure those lazy teachers are doing their jobs without it (gasp)?

    By letting the parents take their kids (and money) elsewhere.

    High-stakes testing is a poor alternative to giving parents meaningful choices. If MiT is willing to allow choice, then I’ll happily give in on testing.

    However, high-stakes testing is a good idea absent choice. Why? Because it’s accountability.

    Why are public schools so opposed to effective accountability?

  11. I’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand since 1984, and have had the opportunity to see a small country grow out of its socialism. From being an economic and educational basket case, NZ is growing into a real comer!

  12. Mike in Texas says:

    I have no problem with accountability, the problems I have are with the people who want to make the rules. I don’t want some educrat who hasn’t been in a classroom in 20 years, or some politician who has never been in the classroom, to determine if I’m a good teacher or not.

  13. Typical right-wing propaganda rubbish.

  14. Hey there Mike in TX. Who would you let set the rules? The parent? The teachers? How will you be graded?