Lessons for U.S. as School Choice Spreads Worldwide

Published July 1, 2004

School choice has taken hold around the globe in many forms. It is practiced from Chile to certain provinces of Canada, from the Netherlands to developing countries like Ghana, from Scandinavia to Australia and New Zealand–and in other nations between those wide ranges.

Recently, school reformers convened at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC to look at other countries’ experiences with school choice and to discuss what Americans might learn from them.

David Salisbury, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, said pro-choice school reformers in the U.S. not only should take heart from the burgeoning worldwide movement for choice, but also draw lessons about how to avoid the harmful side effect of government “micromanagement” of participating private schools.

Keynote speaker Charles Glenn, a Boston University professor who has authored major works on international school choice, said that up to now Americans have been “remarkably unwilling to look at the experience of other countries for things to learn”–positive or negative–about implementing choice.

“Much depends on good policy design,” he noted, adding the Dutch have been perfecting their system of choice for the past 80 years.

Glenn, who said he believes in a limited role for government, said the key is to “strike a balance” between two competing objectives: (1) educational freedom and autonomy, and (2) the societal responsibility to see that every child receives an adequate education. In almost every Western country, he added, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of government control.

Protection of “Right of Conscience”
One of the claims made for school choice is that it advances parental rights, but that rationale is rarely stated in the United States, despite the long-standing U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which recognized the primacy of parents in directing the upbringing of their children. By contrast, a “protected right of conscience” for parents “has been the central concern for Europeans,” said Glenn.

Most European countries recognize the parents’ right to seek schools that have a coherent world view, whether religious or otherwise. Exercise of that right is balanced through judicious enforcement of state standards. Glenn gave as one example how sex education is done in Denmark: The government requires that it be in the curriculum, but parents have the choice in how it is delivered.

Glenn lauded the sense of community that often coalesces when schools can develop diverse programs to respond to particular interests of their patrons. Too often, he observed, American public schools resemble “the bland leading the bland.” In Holland, Finland, and Hungary, schools that have developed distinctive programs may propose an alternative set of standards to which they would be held accountable.

Serving the Poor
The Cato conferees heard of an altogether different kind of school choice being exercised in China, Ghana, India, Kenya, and Nigeria. James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle (England), told of research he has done locating private schools that serve the poorest of families in those countries.

Although the governments often have tried to deny their existence or close them down, these private schools–which are illegal in some of the countries involved–often are more numerous than the government schools serving the urban slums.

Tooley found that these schools, run by what he termed “edupreneurs,” have satisfied parents, delivered instructional results, offered better facilities than the public schools, and even turned a profit. They are able to do this by charging small fees, although they also offer scholarships when they are needed.

“The private sector is serving a majority of the poor and providing better educational opportunity than the public schools,” he noted, suggesting that the message for school reformers is: “Think private.” Real accountability comes from people “just doing for themselves” instead of government taking from them and then giving back just a little through parceled educational benefits.

Increase in Private Schools
Chile and Sweden are two countries that have experienced vast increases in private (independent) schools as a result of voucher systems launched within the past two decades.

In Chile, only 10 percent of students were in private schools prior to the start of vouchers in the early 1980s, but now the private/public split in enrollment is about 50/50. Chilean professor Claudio Sapelli said an analysis of test scores shows the private schools have been about 10 percent more effective than the public schools, a significant but “not dramatic” difference.

One of the regulatory problems in Chile is that the government provides disincentives for needy children to leave the public schools. If they take a voucher, they lose an array of special services, such as a free breakfast.

John Merrifield, an economics professor at the University of Texas/San Antonio and school choice author, suggested that were it not for extensive central regulation, Chile’s private schools could be considerably more than 10 percent better than the public schools. He suggested price controls imposed on voucher schools are a common factor making the beneficial impact of educational freedom far less than it could be.

Sweden More Open to Choice than U.S.
In Sweden–a nation long known as the most socialist in the free world–the advent of school choice over the past decade has led to a five-fold increase in independent schools, according to F. Mikael Sandstrom, a political adviser to the Moderate Party in the Swedish Parliament.

The system is much more open than in the limited U.S. voucher experiments: All Swedes, not just the poor, are allowed a choice between independent and municipal schools, and it is relatively easy to start a private school and receive subsidies. Such schools may be for-profit–which is the fastest-growing segment–or religious.

School choice, which has generated positive academic results, is “immensely popular,” according to Sandstrom. Among the political parties, “only the old Communist Party opposes school choice.” The Social Democrats have talked about instituting tighter regulation, but currently “I don’t think there is a great danger of re-regulation,” he said.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A webcast of the Cato Institute’s May 24, 2004 conference, “Looking Worldwide: What Americans Can Learn from School Choice in Other Countries,” can be found online at http://www.cato.org/events/schoolchoice/index.html.