School Choice in International Perspective
Choosing Choice: School Choice in International Perspective
Edited by David N. Plank & Gary L. Sykes
Teachers College Press, Columbia University,
New York & London, 2003 (232 pp)
Given the ongoing debate about vouchers, and their impact on the country's public schools, this is clearly a timely contribution to the national discussion. One caveat, though. This is a scholarly work, geared to a professional audience of policy makers, high-level educational administrators and academics pursuing their own research in this field. It's not for an easy afternoon read, curled up with a cup of hot cocoa. Small doses, giving one ample time to digest the research and the statistics, would probably be most effective.
The book is basically organized as a series of chapters, each of which deals with the specific experience of how countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, China, England, Wales, Sweden, South Africa, and others managed to institute school choice—and how the consequences played out. As the editors write, "The evidence that school choice policies ´work' remains provisional and equivocal, even in countries where choice policies have been in place for some time, but the move toward choice and competition in national education systems appears inexorable."
With that as a given, the results are sometimes surprisingly similar, as well as subtly different. In New Zealand, for example, the authors of that chapter found increasing polarization of student enrollment, along ethnic and socioeconomic grounds, when school choice programs were initiated. In England and Wales, a disturbing consequence was that "...choice has led to a narrowing of the focus of schooling onto examinations." A benefit for Swedish parents was that school choice compelled teachers to improve the quality of the schools, even if the implementation of school choice has led to confusion about exactly who is responsible for what.
The Australia experience—of particular interest, one would imagine, to American educators—resulted in the much-feared "bright flight" that many educators believe would be the result of widespread voucher systems here. And in South Africa, school choice offered more opportunities for the offspring of the emerging black middle class, even as poor black children were faced with little prospect of even exercising a choice.
The authors of the chapter on post-Communist Central Europe experiences in Hungary and the Czech Republic in fact, point out that these countries provide "an interesting laboratory in which to investigate possible responses were a relatively large US state to adopt universal education vouchers...Private schools appear to have arisen in response to distinct market incentives. They are more common in areas where public school inertia has resulted in an undersupply of available slots. They are also more common where the public schools appear to be doing a worse job in their primary educational mission, as seen by the success rate of academic high schools in obtaining admission to the top universities for their graduates or of technical high schools in obtaining employment and high wages for their graduates. There is also preliminary evidence that public schools facing private competition improve their performance."
Anyone concerned with the future of public schools, as the national voucher movement gains credibility and political currency, would be well advised to read this book carefully.#