| October 6, 2014

School choice is nothing new

Critics of educational choice often claim that choice is only supported by a small clique of radicals who probably want to destroy the public schools. Unfortunately, those critics are quite provincial; they may not even realize that in a good portion of Europe and Latin America, school-choice policies allow and even encourage up to three-fourths of students to attend private schools at government expense.

In some of those nations, cities or the national government pay the costs of educating a child directly to the private school. In others, the payment comes in the form of a generous tax credit which allows families to pay private school tuition. And in almost all of them, students learn more in both public and private schools precisely because those families have real choices.

The Friedman Foundation recently surveyed 68 countries and found that 30 of them sponsored either a voucher or tuition tax credit system. As education writer Diane Ravitch noted in 2001, “the proportion of students in government funded private schools is sizable in countries such as Australia (25 percent), Belgium (58 percent), Denmark (11 percent), France (16.8 percent), South Korea (21 percent), the Netherlands (76 percent), Spain (24 percent) and the United Kingdom (30 percent).”

Two European nations offer instructive lessons to American policymakers.

The Netherlands actually wrote school choice into their constitution as long ago as 1917. Today three out of four children there attend some form of private school at taxpayer expense. Those dollars allocated to educate each child follow the child to the school of his or her parents’ choice.

Sweden’s experience is also illuminating. Prior to the rise of a center-right governing coalition in the early 1990s, Sweden sent most kids to government schools. But a voucher system implemented in 1992 opened the floodgates. According to a Forbes magazine article on the Swedish experience, private school enrollment jumped from less than one percent to more than 10 percent, and it’s still climbing. Citing a study by Swedish academics, the article noted that “the higher percentage of voucher students there are in a district, the better students do on a variety of outcomes. (There is) a positive effect of test scores, compulsory school grades, choosing an academic high school track, high school grades (and) probability of attending college.”

In short, educational choice not only opens new educational opportunities for many students, it makes the public schools they left behind better too.

The oft-cited objection raised by school-choice opponents – that choice is somehow novel and nefarious – rings hollow when a good number of nations around the world have already embraced it.

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