Lessons for Choice Legislation

Published February 1, 2000

Claudia Rebanks Hepburn’s report for The Fraser Institute, The Case for School Choice: Models from the United States, New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden, contains a wealth of information about the benefits that school choice has brought to different countries and how different policies have augmented or reduced these benefits.

1. Let the board control the budget

Compared to school boards whose budgetary authority was more circumscribed, school boards in New Zealand that had full control of their school budget hired more teachers and had principals who “believed learning opportunities had been enhanced.”

2. Allow schools to open and close

It’s important to allow failing or unpopular charter schools to close and to permit new ones to open even if there is space for students in existing schools. In New Zealand, the lack of these two options has left the best charter schools with waiting lists and some students–often from low-income Maori families–still trapped in failing schools.

3. Rate the schools

Although unpopular with educators, annual reports from government inspectors on school standards and performance helped failing schools in New Zealand to recognize that changes needed to be made.

4. Low-income families can make sound choices

A limited voucher program for low-income families in New Zealand showed that “parents in the scheme appear to have engaged in a careful and skilled process of selecting a school.”

5. Vouchers make public schools better

Experience with vouchers in Denmark shows that–contrary to the fears of U.S. teacher unions–public schools do not become dumping grounds for poorly skilled or poorly motivated students. On the contrary, school choice in Denmark has had the opposite effect, prompting public schools to improve and to become highly regarded alternatives to the independent schools. All parties in the Danish parliament believe that the government schools benefit from “the experience and competition offered by the private schools.”

6. Keep regulations to a minimum

A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development states that “the laissez-faire approach to private schools in Denmark produces a diversity unparalleled in other OECD countries.” Other than being required to teach the basic subjects, maintain parental support, and pay teachers the same as they are paid in government schools, independent schools in Denmark have considerable autonomy–for example, to select or expel students on whatever grounds they choose.

“This freedom reflects a trust of, and respect for, educators and a tolerance for a variety of educational choices,” notes Hepburn. “It also reflects a belief that freedom is necessary both to attract innovative and visionary educators and to provide schools that can cater to diverse student bodies.”

7. Allow schools to choose students

In contrast to the dynamic school choice marketplace created by a minimum of regulation in Denmark, schools in Sweden are much less diverse. That latter country’s school choice system requires schools to accept voucher students on a first-come, first-served basis. Ironically, this often forces a school that becomes popular to compromise its mission, because it must accept students who often are not the ones who could benefit the most from the unique educational environment the school has to offer.

8. Allow schools to charge partial tuition

Sweden’s voucher schools are not permitted to charge fees since they receive the same per-pupil funding as is paid the government schools. Parents thus are not permitted to make additional educational investments that could benefit their children.

In Denmark, a different philosophy applies. Voucher schools there receive only about 75 percent of the per-pupil spending in government schools, and the voucher schools are required to charge tuition to all parents except those for whom it would case undue financial hardship.