Community Forum on Education in Wellington's Eastern Suburbs: A Case Study on Choice and Democratic Community Participation in New Zealand Education Policy
Two different ideologies were entwined in the revolutionary reforms of the New Zealand education system implemented in 1989. One was represented by a belief, long held in New Zealand, in democratic participation of communities in decisions that affect them, as a way of empowering diverse groups of people and promoting equity for minority and disadvantaged groups. The second was the free market neo-liberalism of the New Right which emphasised the rights and responsibilities of individual people to choose for themselves what they wanted. This belief is seen as an epiphyte growing vigorously onto the main trunk of democratic egalitarian ideals. The notion of choice seemed, in the initial rhetoric of the reforms, to span both beliefs in a way that represented a settlement of the two different ideals. Community Forums on Education was one of the new policies which seemed to meet both these ideals, providing a means for communities to affect decisions about education issues in their own district and for parents through their Board of Trustees to exercise their own choice for what kind of school they wanted. The way in which the two parts of the tree of education policy grew together is examined first through an analysis of the intentions of those who developed the policy for Community Forums on Education, and then in a case study of the implementation of the policy in the third of the Forums which took place in the Eastern Suburbs of Wellington in 1990. The perceptions of some of the participants in this Forum are reported and analysed. Tensions and conflicts between the two ideals are revealed in both the process and the outcomes of this Forum, as the participants discover that the simple market understanding of choice is increasingly favoured by the politicians who still make the final decisions. The participants describe the conditions which they believe are needed for the more complex democratic community participation to succeed. Their growing frustration and disillusionment is described as they discover that political imperatives for quick decisions, tighter central control, and constrained resources ensure these conditions are not met. This Forum is perceived by many to have given the choice to the already privileged minority, who have advantages of time, access to information, confidence in the language of the market and money. In the light of this Forum, I consider in the concluding section the relationship and interaction between two interpretations of democracy - 'strong' democracy characterised by community participation and 'thin' democracy extolling individual freedom of choice. The question that is raised is whether it is possible, under a New Right regime committed to individual freedom of choice, for the conditions necessary for democratic participation to flourish.