All entries for Tuesday 17 January 2006

January 17, 2006

Education Vouchers

Reason magazine discusses a John Stossel programme on public schools in the US and their performance relative to other countries.

For "Stupid in America," a special report ABC will air Friday, we gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. The Belgian kids cleaned the American kids' clocks. The Belgian kids called the American students "stupid."

We didn't pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey's kids have test scores that are above average for America.

The Belgians did better because their schools are better. At age ten, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth. The longer kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from countries that spend much less money on education.

Read in full here.

The show made the expected points about the homogeneity of public schools, lower incentives to improve poor performance, bureaucratic structures which make firing teachers difficult, etc. It went on to discuss the case in favour of education vouchers.

This case for vouchers isnít based on dubious claims about the automatic superiority of private solutions. There are many great public schools in the UK; they may even outperform their independent neighbours. However fact remains that some children must endure bad schools. Poor families in bad neighbourhoods canít afford tuition fees; they canít afford to move to a better area. Theyíre stuck. While we have Oxbridge politicians talking about respect, reform and results in schools the pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numerical skills. David Cameron will likely reject the idea because it Ďcanít be soldí to the public.

A voucher system may not cure all ills, but it would give pupils a choice. Giving control of funds to the pupils themselves would permit access to better schools in other areas, allow the development of new schools and give bad public schools a real incentive to change. That some public schools would be forced to close can only be a good thing. After all, why would parents leave a school that is doing its job? Our goal is not the existence of public schools, but the existence of institutions that prepare children for later life. If those institutions are owned by profit/non-profit firms, churches and mosques, then so be it.

An objection to a universal voucher scheme is that the only new schools to be developed would cater for middle class students, leaving the poor and those with special needs behind in sink schools. I donít think this is likely and it hasnít been the experience elsewhere. Iíll link to some info on other countries in another post. In any case, a second-best solution would be to grant vouchers only to these vulnerable groups.

Some say that they donít want choice. Theyíre not interested in carrying out research into which school has the best IT equipment, ratios of teachers to students, plans to develop sporting facilities, etc. They just want to send their child to the nearest school in the knowledge itíll do its job. Thatí fine. But just as having many different car manufacturers raises the average quality of cars, even for those uninterested in the details, a voucher system should increase the probability of the local school being a decent one.

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