HEALTH & EDUCATION|
40: That'll do nicely
Empowering parents through vouchers
The problem: giving choice to all
Why should those parents and children who can't afford private school fees (or the cost of a house near to a decent state-run school) be the only ones who are denied a real choice? Would it not place a very positive incentive on schools to perform, if dissatisfied parents, even the poorest, could realistically move their children elsewhere?
The solution: financial power for parents
To give parents the financial power to choose, the idea is that they are given a voucher, near in value to the cost of a state education, which they can use to pay for education at any independent school - or at one of the new schools that emerge to cater for these voucher-enabled pupils.
Example: enfranchising poor parents
Contrary to the arguments of their opponents, vouchers are most popular amongst the poor and those who feel socially excluded because their community schools are so poorly run. In the United States, the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, an African-American think tank, released a poll at the end of 2000 showing that 60 per cent of African-Americans support vouchers (a figure which rises to over 75 per cent among those under 35).
Support for voucher programmes grows daily, and they are springing up all the time. It would be wrong to overstate the numbers - the idea is still in its infancy. But already some 50,000 children benefit from voucher schemes funded by philanthropists, and another 20,000 are in state-funded schemes.
Where vouchers have been introduced, the results have been beneficial in terms of student performance. A recent study by researchers at Harvard, Georgetown and Wisconsin found that poor black students in Dayton, Ohio, Washington D.C., and New York City have used their $1700 voucher to outperform their peers by an average of 7 per cent in reading and maths.
Examples: a new school TIE
New Zealand has also experimented with vouchers, beginning in 1996 with a small, pilot programme for children from low-income families. The Targeted Individual Entitlement Scheme (TIE) provides 160 students with funding for the independent school of their parents' choice. It also provides the student's family with an allowance (of NZ$900 for primary students and NZ$1,100 for secondary students) to cover additional expenses such as uniforms, books, and extra-curricular activities.
Surveys revealed that 97 percent of parents whose children were selected by TIE rated themselves as either satisfied or very satisfied with their child's progress. Teachers and principals were also enthusiastic about the benefits of the scheme for the pupils, who were thought to be progressing as well or better than fee-paying students.
Independent schools are important in Denmark, where the state covers between 70-85 per cent of the cost by way of a voucher system, with the rest coming from parents. The Ministry of Education pays a per capita sum to each independent school, the exact amount depending upon the size of the school, the age of the students, and the age of the teachers. Independent schools are required to charge all parents, except those for whom it would cause undue financial hardship: the Danes believe that a family's commitment to independent education should be substantiated by a financial contribution.
Though not a pure voucher system, which would put the spending power directly into the hands of parents rather than schools, the Danish system shows how choice can improve the whole system. State-run schools improved sharply when they began to lose students to the independents - good news for those students who stayed behind.
The Netherlands has a broadly similar system. Parents can choose any school (public or private), and public money is directed to each school on the basis of those choice, weighted to reflect social need.
In 1991, following popular dissatisfaction with state education in Sweden, power was devolved from the central government to parents, townships and independent schools. For the first time, parents were free to send their children to any government school within their municipality - or to an independent school, with public funding following the child to the school chosen. Independent schools approved by the new National Education Agency would receive 85 percent of the cost of educating a student in the municipal school system. Within a year, the number of independent schools doubled.
Swedish governments have changed the voucher amount twice since 1991, first reducing it from covering 85 to 75 percent and, then, in 1997 raising it to (in theory) 100 percent of municipal schools' funding per student. The National Agency for Education now receives hundreds of applications each year from parents and educators hoping to start their own schools.
The fastest-growing schools are those started by teachers, parents and educators who were dissatisfied with the education provided by their local government schools. Each new school offers students an educational alternative in response to a local demand and is paid for by the public voucher.
However, even these schools are still heavily regulated by government. They must follow curricula imposed by the government, which stipulates the exact number of hours each mandatory subject must be taught, and all students must sit local government tests four times in their academic careers.
A 1996 survey by the late Professor Edwin G West identified 20 countries where the voucher principle has operated. In Columbia, for example, vouchers were introduced in 1992, and by 1994 served 90,000 low-income students. In 1993, Puerto Rico instituted a voucher programme for low-income families, though a year later it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unfair. Until 1998, the United Kingdom had a quasi-voucher scheme in the form of the 1981 Assisted Places scheme, whereby the government paid the fees of poor but able students who sought to attend private schools, plus a per-capita funding system that allowed good state schools to be rewarded for attracting more pupils (see the chapter The Invisible Voucher).
Assessment: a class act
Education vouchers are difficult to introduce politically, since choice is the enemy of many state producers, while others are worried about the effects on equality. However, they can be used to improve the educational access and prospects of the poorest students, and have been very popular where they have been tried, and clearly have a positive effect on educational achievement.
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Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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