Commentary

School Choice: Learning from Other Countries

By David F. Salisbury
May 31, 2005

Debates about how to reform American education seldom consider the experiences of other nations. In the United States, the federal government is trying to force reform on schools through the No Child Left Behind Act. States and teachers unions are in open revolt against the act’s requirements. Utah recently passed a law that would place state law above federal guidelines. Meanwhile, many countries have moved ahead of the United States by rejecting the top-down approach to education. Quite a few of these nations are producing promising results.

In the Netherlands, nearly 76 percent of school-age children attend private schools with state money going to the chosen school. Sweden and Denmark also have liberal school choice policies with school funding following children whose parents choose private schools. In all three countries, student performance is higher than in the United States, where 15-year-olds scored twenty-first on mathematics literacy and twelfth in science, according to international performance audits.

School choice also exists in Chile, where 46 percent of students enroll in private schools. Even some former communist countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic allow parents to pay for private schools with public funds.

Whenever school choice programs are proposed in the United States, they face fierce opposition from critics who claim that school choice benefits mostly wealthy parents, drains money from the public system, and segregates students into racial or economic groups.

But the experiences of countries that have experimented with school choice indicate that these claims are unfounded. In most cases, the main beneficiaries have been poor families living in inner cities. In Hungary, where vouchers were introduced after the fall of communism, most new private schools have emerged in poor inner-city or rural areas, where access to good public schools is most limited.

Although private schools receive public funds on a per-child basis, they typically cost less than what the government pays to educate children in the public system. When more children choose private schools, public schools actually have more money to spend on students.

In Alberta, Canada, where children can attend either a private or public school, public schools have improved the quality and diversity of their programs. They have also focused more attention on parental satisfaction and academic outcomes. As a result, Alberta public schools continue to attract the bulk of local students.

Rather than segregate students into racial, educational, or economic groups, school choice seems to do just the opposite.

In Sweden, the share of immigrant students from poor families has increased in the popular inner-city schools that were once predominately upper class. In addition, students with special needs take advantage of school choice on an equal basis with regular students. Many regular independent schools in Sweden educate special needs children, and surveys show that parents like the private schools better. The Swedish system of school choice has led to an impressive expansion of independent schools, resulting in a wider variety of school types and educational programs than had existed previously.

Scholars who have studied the various types of educational systems in Europe conclude that students seem to perform better in countries where more schools are privately managed and where a larger share of the enrollment is in such schools.

Americans should learn from these examples and study the evidence before accepting claims that school choice doesn’t help poor families, creates segregation, or harms public schools. The experiences of other countries show that choice has beneficial effects all around, especially if public schools are given increased autonomy and flexibility.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and editor of the new Cato book What America Can Learn from School Choice in Other Countries.