School Choice Gathers Momentum Worldwide

Published November 1, 2003

The concept of private choice as a public good in primary and secondary education is rapidly gaining favor worldwide, even in nations not exactly famed as champions of individual rights.

In September, while a handful of U.S. senators contemplated a filibuster of a voucher measure that would enable fewer than two thousand District of Columbia children to exit failing public schools in favor of productive private ones, the People’s Republic of China was putting into effect a law giving private schools equal standing with state-owned schools.

The law went into effect during a forum on how to boost the growth of a private educational sector in China, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. According to statistics prepared for the National People’s Congress, some 54,000 private schools enrolling almost 7 million students had opened their doors in China by the end of 2000.

By assisting the private schools with loans, tax credits, and similar assistance, the government hopes to stimulate much more dramatic private school growth to help meet China’s huge educational needs.

“Although local governments … have put a lot of cash into education, government-run schools can’t meet the needs of the public due to the large population of China,” reported the China Daily when the law was being drafted.

Voucher Petition in Taiwan

Meanwhile, across the straits in Taiwan, advocates of increased student choice were prominent at a National Conference on Education. Reformers presented President Chen Shui-bian a petition asking that the education ministry provide free-choice vouchers for all persons between the ages of 4 and 20.

“All students would be eligible for these vouchers,” explained a representative of a grassroots education reform organization. “As long as you were a citizen, you would have a right to receive education vouchers.”

The group contends the competition for students would elevate the quality of education in Taiwan.

Empowering Parents in Thailand

Vouchers also have entered the education policy debate in Thailand. Professor Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, education commission chairman of the government’s think tank, has proposed a radical overhaul of school finance that would empower individual consumers instead of bureaucracy.

“Students would decide which schools they want to attend and then use the vouchers to pay the fees,” Kriengsak told The Nation of Bangkok. His proposal comes as the kingdom’s Ministry of Education is considering a way to provide for 12 years of “free” education.

Supporters of vouchers for Thailand argue choice would cause schools to raise their standards in order to compete for students, while motivating the empowered students to be more enthusiastic about their studies.

Vouchers for South Africa?

In post-apartheid South Africa, vouchers are being viewed as a way to reduce disparities between rich and poor.

“South Africa should embark on a school voucher experiment to improve the quality of education available to the poor,” said Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), in releasing a CDE study of successes in the U.S. with public and private voucher programs. The study was written by Boston University professor Charles Glenn, an authority on the international dimension of school choice. CDE is an independent policy research and advocacy organization based in Johannesburg.

In the portion of his study that cited Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher experiment, Glenn quotes African-American activist Mikel Holt, editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal.

“What all of these parents and all of these children [supporting vouchers] have in common is that they are all part of what we call a civil rights movement. It’s an educational civil rights movement …” said Holt. “The civil rights movement my parents were involved in and I was involved in when I was a lot younger was to guarantee access. It was to get us to the lunch counter. The new civil rights agenda, since we’re already at the lunch counter, is to make sure that our children can read the menu.”

Following up on that comment, the CDE’s Bernstein notes, “the similarities with South Africa are striking. South Africans have enjoyed a decade of political freedom, but far too many of us are still unable to ‘read the menu.'”

She cites the following figures from the South Africa Department of Education:

  • In Grade 3, the average reading and writing score is only 39 percent, and the average mathematics score is even lower, 30 percent;
  • Close to 60 percent of pupils are reported to drop out before they graduate; and
  • South Africa spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than any other middle-income developing country.

Glenn notes that despite some major differences, there also are “striking similarities” in the way the education systems operate in the U.S. and in South Africa. In both, the middle classes–black and white alike–already choose the best school they can for their children, while many, if not most, poor black children have no choice but to attend low-quality schools. Both countries have private sectors with rich traditions of generous giving to social causes. But the U.S. stands apart with the rise of public-private partnerships to support voucher programs.

“Perhaps it is time for a similar coalition to begin creating school choice–and ultimately better lives–for poorer South Africans,” Glenn concludes.

Policy Shift in Britain

Glenn’s report on American voucher experiments also points out that almost all European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, honor the principle that “parents have a right to ensure that their children receive an education consistent with their own values, and that government should make this possible …”

In Britain, a vision of public-sector reform coming to the fore in the ruling Labor government soon may strengthen that commitment. London School of Economics professor Julian Le Grand, a newly appointed policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, advocates shifting away from the current policy model, which puts most power in the hands of providers, such as doctors and teachers, and little in the hands of consumers, such as patients and pupils.

In education, Le Grand wants to reverse that power equation by means of vouchers, with poor families receiving vouchers that have the highest cash value. With portable school funds like these, he argues, the better schools would have an incentive to accept greater numbers of poor students. A BBC economics analyst predicted Le Grand’s appointment signals Blair “will not be distracted from his drive to transform the public services by the opposition of the unions and other Labor Party members.”

Canada Looks at Educational Freedom

The Fraser Institute, a market-oriented think tank based in Vancouver, released its first-ever Canadian Education Freedom Index, comparing the 10 provinces on the degree of educational freedom they offer parents. The Index, modeled on an index for the 50 American states developed by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, takes into account home schooling, private schools, and public charter schools.

Alberta ranks as the freest province, followed by British Columbia, Quebec, and Manitoba. Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland are the least free.

According to the Fraser Institute researchers, high academic achievement does not appear to be the result of small class sizes or high spending. Alberta, the educationally freest province, is also consistently the highest scorer academically. It also has the highest student/educator ratio in all of Canada, and it spends less per pupil than three other major provinces.

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 …

Links to two Chinese newspaper articles on private school developments are available online through the Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly publication at

The September 2003 study, No Child Left Behind: Lessons from American School Voucher Programmes, by Charles Glenn, is available for ordering through the Web site of the Centre for Development and Enterprise at

The Fraser Institute’s September 2003 report, The Canadian Education Freedom Index, by the Institute’s director of education policy, Claudia R. Hepburn, is available online at

The 2003 edition of Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators is available for ordering through the Web site of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development at