Universal parental choice worth a try

With vouchers one of the most controversial issues in education in this country, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Chile, which instituted universal vouchers in 1981 (“What Might Happen If School Vouchers And Privatization Of Schools Were To Become Universal In The U.S.: Learning From A National Test Case – Chile,” National Education Policy Center, June).

The greatest criticism of a universal voucher system is that it favors middle-class families at the expense of low-income families.  It does so because schools primarily select students more than students select schools.  (Think of this as what takes place now when high school seniors apply to college.)  Chile proved this is the case because schools were allowed to use admissions tests and parental interviews to determine which students to admit.  Moreover, since 1993 voucher schools were allowed to charge parents an additional amount over the government voucher. As a result, universal choice really is constrained choice.

Critics of vouchers forget, however, that no educational system is perfect.  Rather than abolish vouchers, I say why not make them fairer.  Let’s not forget that low-income black parents in the U.S. constitute a disproportionate part of the wait lists for charter schools.  They demand choice. For example, in New York City’s Harlem and the South Bronx, there are nearly four applicants for each available charter seat.  Why are they denied that opportunity? Is it because charters don’t provide bus transportation or require unaffordable uniforms?

The irony is that in Chile the performance gap between the country as a whole and the poorest 40 percent was cut by one-third in just five years.  That’s a huge accomplishment given short shrift in the debate.  Let’s learn from Chile to try to improve the education offered to so many low-income black and Hispanic students.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



2 Replies to “Universal parental choice worth a try”

  1. Or — just reinstitute tracking in the inner-city/low-SES neighborhood public schools. Much easier than setting up a bureaucracy to monitor compliance by private schools with govt standards + avoids the literally millions of hours wasted transporting students to non-neighborhood schools.

    Also, reforms that emphasize choice completely ignore the main cause of the achievement gap — that is, the inferior parenting (broadly construed to include health, nutrition, sleep, stress and most importantly high-quantity/high-quality adult-child verbal interaction) from birth through kindergarten in many/most low-SES families. Granted — reinstituting tracking likewise ignores this problem.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I think tracking is a realistic way to increase learning. But it is attacked for being elitist. Our competitors abroad have no such problem with differentiation in education, and their performance on tests of international competition show it.


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