Worldwide, School Choice Hasn’t Improved Performance

Worldwide, School Choice Hasn’t Improved Performance

Henry M. Levin; Steve Hinnefeld January 30, 2017 U.S. News and World Report


Worldwide, rising populism and identity politics are leading to increased demands from families seeking out specific types of schools that mirror their ideologies. In some countries, this has extended to replacing the public system of schools with government vouchers that can be used to pay for private schools – a priority of Betsy DeVos, the nominee for U.S. education secretary.

Advocates argue that school choice promotes competition that will improve performance and allow the freedom of choice that will best serve student educational needs and family preferences.

These are not new ideas. Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman designed an educational voucher plan some 60 years ago that was adopted by Sweden and Chile. Under his plan, families can use vouchers at any approved private school. Several states and cities in the U.S. sponsor voucher approaches for students from low-income families that are used mainly at religiously affiliated schools.

Education in most democratic countries was established primarily to prepare students for roles in the emerging industrial democracies of the 19th century. Democratic political participation requires access to information, engagement in discourse and electoral activity to be effective. Economic participation requires understanding of markets, prices, money, government intervention, employment relationships and economic responsibilities and opportunities.

“A stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some common set of values,” Friedman wrote in a 1955 essay on educational vouchers. This required universal schooling at government expense.

Clearly there is a tension between unfettered school choice as a goal and a common educational experience that will ensure students are prepared for the demands of a democratic society. Families have their own private goals and their own reasons for preferring particular types of schooling experience.

Eighty percent of private school students in the U.S. are in religiously affiliated institutions that reflect their family beliefs, but not necessarily the values of a democracy. It is natural that families would like their schools to reinforce their religious, philosophical and political beliefs, but these must be weighed against a common experience that justifies government funding.

Some have argued that competitive incentives induced by school choice will lead to better educational outcomes. However, there is little evidence to support this claim.

Sweden has had an educational voucher system since 1992, but its achievement levels on international tests have been falling for two decades. Chile has had such a system since 1980, and there is little evidence of improvement in achievement relative to countries at similar levels of income. Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the District of Columbia have issued vouchers to low-income families, but sophisticated evaluations find no difference between achievement in private voucher schools and public schools with similar student populations. Students from low-income families in Louisiana who have used vouchers to shift from public to private schools have experienced striking reductions in achievement gains relative to similar students in public schools.

In England there has been a dramatic shift from schools governed by public councils to academies run by private groups with great autonomy and the ability to select their own students. The results on student achievement show no distinct advantage, and there are similar results for U.S. charter schools based upon careful statistical comparisons.

Where school choice has shown powerful effects around the world is the systematic separation of students by ethnicity, social class and religion.

Sweden’s vouchers have increased segregation by social class and immigrant status. Chile’s voucher system has produced one of the most segregated system of schools in the world by family income. In the Netherlands, studies of the school choice system have pointed to school separation of students by ethnicity, immigrant status and family income. A Brookings Institution study found that U.S. charter schools are more segregated racially and socio-economically than public schools in surrounding areas. The Program for International Student Assessment, an important triennial study of international student performance, finds school segregation by social class is associated with school choice.

Although even public schools have segregation challenges typically caused by residential location, school choice tends to streamline the racial, social class and ethnic isolation of students, as well as separate them by political ideology and religion.

Parents have their own private goals for their children and ample opportunities to pursue them. Schools account for only about 10 percent of the waking hours of the young between birth and age 18, freeing most of the time for family experience. They also have a constitutional right to send their children to religious schools.

The question is how to balance the quest for school choice with preparation of the young for the shared values and knowledge necessary for an effective democracy. Universal school choice will undermine a shared experience and further exacerbate conflict and social division. The challenge for education is to find forms of choice that insure exposure of all students to the experiences they need for democratic participation.


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