Under voucher programs, the state provides money to parents to defray some or all of their children’s tuition at the government-approved school of their choice. Typically, voucher programs permit parents to choose from among government-run schools and private schools that adhere to certain rules. True voucher programs deliver a physical check to parents which is then signed over to and redeemed by their chosen school, but some foreign voucher-like programs pay participating schools directly based on their enrollment figures. Voucher programs and proposals also vary in a number of other specifics. Under some programs, vouchers must be accepted as full payment of tuition by participating schools, while under others schools can charge tuition in excess of the voucher amount. Sometimes the voucher amount is uniform for all children, and at others it varies based on financial need, student disability, or other considerations. Some programs have relatively liberal school participation criteria, while others exclude profit-making, religious, or other sorts of schools and impose extensive curriculum, testing, and admissions requirements.

Having the state impose either pedagogical philosophy on an entire nation’s schools is an obvious recipe for conflict.

An innovative variation on conventional voucher programs has also been proposed by the Heartland Institute. Under the Heartland Plan, the voucher is set at a comparatively high level, the current average per-pupil public school expenditure, and parents are permitted to keep any portion of the voucher that they do not spend on tuition. This extra money can then be deposited in a savings account and later withdrawn to pay for school fees or tuition in subsequent years (including college tuition). In an alternative formulation of the plan,[18] money from the savings account could also be spent on supplementary tutoring services. When the child for whom the savings account was originally set up reaches the age of 23, any money left over would be returned to the state.[19]

There are currently seven voucher programs operating in six states around the United States, there are well-established national voucher-like programs operating in Chile and the Netherlands, and there is a smaller, more recent voucher-like program in Sweden. The logistical and policy details of the American programs are summarized in the tables below, and these are followed by brief reviews of the major foreign voucher-like programs.

Summary of U.S. Voucher Programs

Table 3

Milwaukee Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

13,268 (2003-2004)

Student enrollment cap

15% of Milwaukee Public School District (MPSD) Enrollment

Number of participating schools

107 (2003-2004)

Age of program

13 years

Voucher size

The lower of $5,882 or the school’s combined tuition and

debt service cost

Total program cost

$76 million (2003-2004)

Source of funding

45% from reduction in state transfers to MPSD and 55% from the state’s general fund

Student participation criteria

- Milwaukee resident

- Family income <= 175% of poverty line

- In prior school year pupil was either: enrolled in MPSD, was already enrolled in the voucher program, was enrolled in kindergarten through the 3rd grade in a Milwaukee private school, or was not enrolled in school.

School financial regulations

- Voucher must be accepted as full payment of tuition

- Must submit yearly audit to the state

School facilities regulations

Must meet all health and safety laws and codes that apply to public schools

School admissions regulations

- must use random lottery if oversubscribed

- no discrimination by race, color, national origin

School personnel regulations

- no discrimination by race, color, national origin

School content regulations

May not require pupils to participate in any religious activities without parental approval

School testing regulations

None

School performance regulations

At least one of the following must be true, in the judgment of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction:

- At least 70% of the pupils in the program advance one grade level each year.

- The private school’s average attendance rate for the pupils in the program is at least 90%.

- At least 80% of the pupils in the program demonstrate significant academic progress.

- At least 70% of the families of pupils in the program meet parent involvement criteria established by the private school.

Sources: "Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), MPCP Facts and Figures for 2003-2004," Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Division for Finance and Management (DFM), School Management Services (SMS), p. 1. Obtained online at: [http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/dpi/dfm/sms/doc/mpc03fnf.doc].
And: Wisconsin Statues, sections 119.23 and 121.004. Obtained online at: [http://www.legis.state.wi.us/statutes/Stat0119.pdf] and [http://www.legis.state.wi.us/statutes/Stat0121.pdf].


Table 4

Cleveland Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

5,147 (2002-2003)

Student enrollment cap

Depends solely on the level of funding allocated to the program by the state

Number of participating schools

50 (2002-2003)

Age of program

7 years

Voucher size

- A maximum of $3,000 for K-8th graders (2003-2004)

- A maximum of $2,700 for 9th graders (2003-2004)

- Families earning less than 200 percent of a state-determined poverty threshold receive a voucher worth up to 90% of tuition, while those above that threshold receive a 75% voucher.

Total program cost

$16.4 million (2003-2004)

Source of funding

Program funds are deducted from Cleveland’s share of the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid (DPIA) line item of the state’s General Revenue Fund. It is not clear if the legislature simply increases the DPIA’s total value to offset this loss to Cleveland or if the public school district actually loses money when it loses students.

Student participation criteria

- Resident within Cleveland Municipal School District boundaries

- Preference to low-income families, significant discretion given to state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

- In the current school year the pupil must be entering k-8th grade if he/she is new to the program. Returning students are eligible to attend the 9th grade under the program in 2003-2004, and the 10th grade will open up for returning students in 2004-2005.

School financial regulations

- Fees charged to low-income parents may not exceed 10 percent of voucher amount (with “low-income” defined by the state)

- Schools must accept in-kind contributions and services from low-income parents in lieu of fees

School eligibility requirements

Must either be a member of a government approved accrediting body or must follow the pedagogical/curriculum guidelines set down for public schools by the State Board of Education and submit to and pass periodic inspections by the Board of Education.

School facilities regulations

Same as for other “chartered” private schools

School admissions regulations

- Returning students have highest priority, followed by siblings of returning students.

- For all other students, the rules differ depending on the grades involved

- For grades k-3, school must use two random lotteries to admit students. The first lottery includes only low-income applicants (as defined by the state) and this lottery must account for 20 percent of the preceding year’s enrollment for that grade. The second lottery is open to all applicants.

- For grades 4 and up, returning students have priority and all subsequent applicants can be accepted or rejected at the school’s discretion.

- No discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnic background

School personnel regulations

No discrimination based on race, religion, or ethnic background

School content regulations

- Participating schools must be “chartered nonpublic schools.” A chartered nonpublic school is one that conforms to the set of rules laid down by the State Board of Education  in the Ohio Administrative Code under section 3301-35-12 “Chartered nonpublic schools.” 

- Students must attend school for a number of hours and number of days of attendance equivalent to the hours and days of attendance in public schools.

School testing regulations

Like all private schools in the state, voucher redeeming schools must participate in the statewide government testing program called for under section 3301.07.10 (“Statewide program to test student achievement; graduation tests”) of the Ohio Statutes.

Regulatory bodies

The State Administrative Code requires the State Board of Education to Appoint a nonpublic school committee to advise it on matters related to private schooling. This committee must, by law, be overwhelmingly comprised of representatives of the (mostly religious) currently dominant school accrediting organizations. Three quarters of the members of the advisory committee must be members of these organizations.  This cartelizes control over subsidized private education, ensuring that existing organizations dominate the body that influences policies affecting all current and prospective private schools.

Sources: Ohio Legislative Service Commission, "Catalog of Budget Line Items." Obtained online at: [http://www.lbo.state.oh.us/fiscal/publications/biennial/COBLI_2000_2005/edu.pdf].
And: David Smole, "Almanac of Policy Issues: School Choice," Congressional Research Service, August 1, 2003. Obtained online at: [http://www.policyalmanac.org/education/archive/school_choice.shtml].
And: Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard, "More Money for Vouchers," Akron Beacon Journal, June 29, 2003. Obtained online at: [http://www.ohio.com/mld/ohio/news/6195814.htm].
And: Ohio Administrative Code 3301-35-12, "Chartered nonpublic schools. Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/OAC/11528/12380/124cd?fn=document-frame.htm &f=templates&2.0].
And: Ohio Revised Code § 3313.97.7. "Admission of students to registered private school," as invoked by Ohio Revised Code § 3313.97.6. Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/PORC/15e22/169f8/16e7f?f=templates &fn=document-frame.htm &q=%22scholarship%22&x=Advanced&2.0#LPHit1].
And: Ohio Statutes § 5104.01, "Definitions." Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/PORC/23cb9/24166/24167?fn=document-frame.htm&f=templates&2.0].
And: The State Board of Education is empowered to create rules for public and nonpublic schools under Ohio Statutes § 3301.07, "Powers and duties generally; minimum standards." Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/PORC/15e22/15e23/15e4e?f=templates&fn=document-frame.htm&2.0#JD_330107].
And: Ohio Revised Code § 3321.07, "Requirements for child not attending public schools."
And: Ohio Statutes § 3301.07.10, "Statewide program to test student achievement; graduation tests." Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/PORC/15e22/15e23/15e84?fn=document-frame.htm&f=templates&2.0]. Which was applied to private schools in 1993 (though not implemented until 1995 due to court challenge) under Ohio Revised Code § 3301.16, "Classifying and chartering of school districts and individual schools within district."
And: State Administrative Code 3301-35-12, "Chartered nonpublic schools." Obtained online at: [http://onlinedocs.andersonpublishing.com/oh/lpExt.dll/OAC/11528/12380/124cd?fn=document-frame.htm &f=templates&2.0].


Table 5

Florida A+ Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

1,100 (November, 2003)

Student enrollment cap

13,700 (November, 2003)

Number of participating schools

Unknown - roughly 138 private schools are eligible

Age of program

3 years

Voucher size

The state allocation for the participating child if he/she were to attend a public school or the private school’s actual tuition, whichever is less. The average voucher is between $3,500 and $3,900.

Total program cost

Contingent on student participation (no fixed cap)

Source of funding

State education budget. State allocation follows the student, so districts no longer receive state funds for the students who leave.

Student participation criteria

- In the previous year, the student must have attended a public school that received two consecutive grades of “F” in the past two years on the state’s annual school grading program, or

- The student must be entering kindergarten or the first grade and have been assigned to a public school that was graded “F” in the previous two years, or

- The student must have been previously enrolled in the program.

School financial regulations

- Voucher must constitute full tuition (section 4(i) of enabling legislation).

- School must provide proof of financial viability to the state

School eligibility requirements

School must be accredited by a government approved accrediting body. (section 4(f) of enabling legislation)

School facilities regulations

Same code and safety requirements as all private schools.

School admissions regulations

- Schools may not discriminate by race, color, national origin, religion, academic history (Section 4(c) of the enabling legislation [Florida Statutes 1002.38 ] requires compliance with 42 U.S.C. s. 2000d and section 4(e) of the enabling legislation prohibits academic and religious discrimination against students)

- If there are more applicants than there are places available, students must be accepted on a random lottery basis

- Siblings of previously (randomly) admitted students may be given preference

School personnel regulations

May not discriminate by race, color, national origin, religion

School content regulations

Schools must follow instruction/curriculum guidelines laid down by their government-approved accrediting body (section 4(f)).

School testing regulations

Participating schools must administer the same tests as public schools, including the FCAT reading and mathematics tests and “Florida Writes!”

School performance regulations

To graduate, students must show satisfactory performance on the FCAT or such other graduation tests as are required by the state (section 5(c) of enabling legislation)

School attendance regulations

Schools must follow the attendance requirements set by their government-approved accrediting bodies (section 4(f))

Sources: "Bush says Florida will put up $2 million for vouchers," The Associated Press, November 14, 2003. Obtained online at: [http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20031114/APN/311140966].
And: Matthew I. Pinzur, "Voucher program doubles in size," The Miami Herald, July 23, 2003. Obtained online at: [http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/local/6361954.htm].
And: The figure for total number of eligible schools was arrived at by adding together all the eligible private schools in each of the districts listed on the official program website: [https://www.opportunityschools.org/Info/OSP/osp_flmap_private.asp].
And: Florida Statutes Title XLVIII (K-20 Education Code), Chapter 1002 (Student And Parental Rights And Educational Choices). Obtained online at: [http://www.flsenate.gov/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute &Search_String=&URL=Ch1002/SEC38.HTM &Title=-%3E2002-%3ECh1002-%3ESection%2038].


Table 6

Florida McKay Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

9,202 (June, 2003); approximately 12,000 (fall, 2003)

Student enrollment cap

None

Number of participating schools

Unknown

Age of program

2 years

Voucher size

Average is $5,840 as of October, 2003. Range was $4,500 to $21,000 as of September, 2002.

Total program cost

Contingent on student participation (no fixed cap)

Source of funding

The state education budget (Florida Education Finance Program) allocation for a child with the given category of disability, plus a share of the “guaranteed allocation for exceptional students” for each district laid out in chapter 2000-166, Laws of Florida.

Student participation criteria

- Student is disabled and has an Individual Education Program (IEP) written in accordance with the rules of the State Board of Education

- Student attended a Florida public school in the preceding year

- Student has been accepted at a private school

School financial regulations

School must provide proof of financial viability to the state

School eligibility requirements

School must be accredited by a government approved accrediting body (section 4(f))

School facilities regulations

Same as those pertaining to other private schools

School admissions regulations

May not discriminate by race, color, or national origin (Section 4(c) of the enabling legislation [Florida Statutes 1002.39 ] requires compliance with 42 U.S.C. s. 2000d)

School personnel regulations

May not discriminate by race, color, or national origin (see above).

School content regulations

None

School testing regulations

None

School performance regulations

None

School attendance regulations

None

Sources: Stephen Hegarty, "Disability heals but voucher remains," October 4, 2003. Obtained online at: [http://www.sptimes.com/2003/10/04/news_pf/State/Disability_heals_but_.shtml].
And: Florida Statutes 1002.39. Obtained online at: [http://www.flsenate.gov/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute &Search_String=&URL=Ch1002/SEC39.HTM &Title=-%3E2002-%3ECh1002-%3ESection%2039].
And: Manhattan Institute Education Research Office website, McKay Scholarship page, [http://www.miedresearchoffice.org/mckayscholarship.htm].


Table 7

Colorado Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

N/A

Student enrollment cap

- A variable function of: the number of participating districts (see below), the size of the participating districts, and the number of years since the program was introduced. For eligible school districts, the number of students who may receive vouchers is capped at 1%  in year 1, 2% in year 2, 4% in year 3, and 6% in year four and all subsequent years.

- It is estimated that 20,000 students will be eligible by the 2007-2008 school year if the program begins on schedule in 2004-2005.

Number of participating schools

74 schools provisionally approved

Age of program

passed in 2003 but halted by court injunction

Voucher size

The lesser of the private school’s audited cost per-pupil and:

- For students enrolled in kindergarten, 37½ percent of the district’s per-pupil operating revenues (PPOR)

- For students enrolled in grades 1-8, 75% of the district’s PPOR

- For students enrolled in grades 9-12, 85% of the district’s PPOR.

Total program cost

Dependent on participation

Source of funding

District’s per-pupil allotment of state funding, with the left-over per-pupil amount being retained by the district to pay for fixed-cost items

Student participation criteria

- Students must be in a participating school district

- Students must qualify for a free/reduced price lunch, perform poorly academically, and have attended a public school in the prior year

School financial regulations

Must demonstrate financial viability

School eligibility requirements

Local school districts can deny participation if they construe an applicant school to fall short of the various requirements stipulated in the law.

School facilities regulations

Must meet public school health and safety laws and codes

School admissions regulations

- Schools may give preference to returning students and to the siblings of current/returning students.

- Apart from the previous exceptions, schools must admit eligible students on a first come first accepted basis.

- Schools may not discriminate against eligible children in admissions, dismissals, or other rights or privileges of parents or eligible children, on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or disability (Section 22-56-106, Paragraph 1(b)).

- Students can withdraw at any time with no penalty

School personnel regulations

Fingerprinting of staff and criminal background checks

School content regulations

Schools may not advocate or foster unlawful behavior or teach hatred of a person or a group

School testing regulations

Must permit school district officials to come in and administer state-wide assessments, at the private school’s expense

School performance regulations

none

Program evaluation

An official government assessment of program outcomes will be carried out during the first four years of implementation

Sources: Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 22, Article 56, Paragraphs 101-110. Obtained online at: [http://198.187.128.12/colorado/lpext.dll/Infobase/31283/334f0/3353d/338c0?f=templates&fn=document-frame.htm &q=%22opportunity%20contracts%22&x=Advanced &2.0#LPHit1].
And: "Vouchers In Colorado: How Do the New 'Colorado Opportunity Contracts' Work?" Head First Colorado website, [http://www.headfirstcolorado.org/HB1160.php].


Table 8

Maine Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

5,614 (fall, 1999)

Student enrollment cap

Limited to students in eligible districts (see below)

Number of participating schools

Approximately 23 schools in Maine and 40 schools outside of Maine

Age of program

130 years

Voucher size

- For elementary school, the lesser of the private school’s tuition or $5,421.96, as of 2002-2003

- For an in-state high school, the lesser of the private school’s tuition or $6,966.49, as of 2002-2003

- For an out-of-state high school, the lesser of the private school’s tuition or $6,333.17, as of 2002-2003

Total program cost

Approximately $30 million (no preset limit)

Source of funding

Each district pays for participating students out of its total budget and is then reimbursed by the state.

Student participation criteria

Students must reside within the boundaries of an eligible district.

School district eligibility

Must not have a government operated school

School financial regulations

Schools must provide audited financial records

School eligibility requirements

- Schools must be secular (added in 1981)

- Schools must be accredited by the state

School facilities regulations

Same as for other private schools

School admissions regulations

none

School personnel regulations

none

School content regulations

If publicly funded students comprise >= 60 % of a school’s enrollment it must implement Maine’s “Learning Results,” which prescribe the particular things students should know and be able to do at various stages of their education. The “Learning Results” are deliberately intended to bring private schools’ curricula into conformance with the knowledge and skills the state believes children should have.

School testing regulations

If publicly funded students comprise >= 60 % of a school’s enrollment it must administer the “Maine Educational Assessment” tests. Such schools are treated as public schools by the Department of Education.

School performance regulations

A graduation test requirement has been proposed but was not adopted

Sources: State of Maine, Department Of Education, "2002-2003 Tuition Rates For Private Schools." Obtained online at: [http://www.state.me.us/education/data/tuitionrates/ptuit03.htm].
And: Frank Heller, "Lessons from Maine: Education Vouchers for Students since 1873," Cato Institute Briefing Paper no. 66, September 10, 2001, p. 4. Obtained online at: [http://www.cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp66.pdf].


Table 9

Vermont Voucher Program
Quick Facts

Student enrollment

6,505 (1998-99). This number includes many students who attend public schools in neighboring districts using the vouchers)

Student enrollment cap

Number of children in eligible towns (see below)

Number of participating schools

83 private schools (1998-99). Public schools also eligible

Age of program

134 years

Voucher size

For 1999–2000, the voucher was equal to the lesser of the school's tuition or $7,306 for high schools, $6,514 for seventh and eighth grades, and $6,257 for elementary schools

Total program cost

unknown

Source of funding

Town education budget, refunded by the state

Student participation criteria

Resides in eligible district

School district eligibility

Must not have a government operated school

School eligibility requirements

- School must be secular (added in 1961)

- School must be officially "Approved" by the state, which requires completing a three inch thick set of forms, and either submitting to a government inspection or being a member of a government-approved school accrediting organization (at the State Department of Education's discretion)

School financial regulations

Must provide financial records for state approval

School facilities regulations

Same as for other private schools

School admissions regulations

none

School personnel regulations

"any quasi-public or private elementary or secondary school within the state which directly or indirectly receives support from public funds shall be considered a municipal employer," and hence must abide by the collective bargaining and all other provisions of the Vermont Municipal Labor Relations Act. (21 V.S.A. § 1735) (added in 1975)

School content regulations

"Exercises in commemoration of the birth, life, and services of Abraham Lincoln shall be conducted in all public and independent schools on the last school day before February 12, annually." (16 V.S.A. § 907) (added 1969)

School testing regulations

Must administer the "New Standards Reference Exam"

School performance regulations

none

Sources: Vermont Statutes, Title 21, Chapter 22, Section 1735. Obtained online at: [http://www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/fullsection.cfm?Title=21 &Chapter=022&Section=01735].
And: Vermont Statutes, Title 16, Chapter 23, Section 907. Obtained online at: [http://www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/fullchapter.cfm?Title=16 &Chapter=023].
And: Libby Sternberg, "Lessons from Vermont: 132-Year-Old Voucher Program Rebuts Critics," Cato Briefing Paper no. 67, September 10th, 2001.


Universal Vouchers in the Netherlands

Public schooling was well established in Holland in the early 1800s, and as with most public school systems there was considerable disagreement and conflict over what should be taught in these schools. The major bone of contention was religion. The public schools espoused a lowest common denomination Protestantism, just as U.S. public schools did well into the 20th century. Dutch Catholics and Calvinist Protestants objected to this practice, and demanded that the public schools serving their children reflect their own beliefs. This led to a highly fractious social conflict over religious public schooling that came to be known as the “school struggle.” By the early 1900s, the school struggle had worsened considerably, and could well have erupted into widespread bloodshed.

To defuse this social time-bomb, a constitutional amendment was passed in 1917 under which the government was thenceforward required to provide equal per-pupil funding to government and (participating) private schools, regardless of religion. Though the “Pacification” amendment itself stipulated few requirements for government-funded private schools, it empowered parliament to enact laws regulating such schools. The first line of the amendment states that “Education shall be the constant concern of the Government.”[20] For generations, the Dutch voucher system successfully defused most of the school-related social tensions that had led to its creation. The majority of families, comprised at the time of Catholics, Calvinists, and members of other Protestant denominations, had more or less equal access to government-funded schooling consonant with their religious beliefs.

Today, the per-pupil vouchers issued by the Dutch government are no longer uniform, being larger for children from lower-income families. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most schools use these larger vouchers simply to reduce the overall size of classes for all students. Voucher schools “rarely [make] a special effort… to meet the goal for which the extra funding was granted, namely individual attention for children from disadvantaged families.”[21]

Though government subsidized schools are forbidden to require parental co-payments as a condition for student admission, and though co-payments seem to violate the desire of many Dutch citizens to achieve educational equality by any means necessary, the government has been reluctant to forbid voluntary co-payments. One reason for that reluctance is that having parents pick up some of the cost is recognized to increase their commitment to their children’s education. Another reason is that an outright prohibition on voluntary co-payments to schools would not in fact achieve spending equality, but would simply redirect the extra money to a private market for supplemental education services outside the voucherized school sector (like the Japanese juku[22] industry). Ensuring that any private education spending stays within the government voucherized sector is considered an advantage by most Dutch lawmakers.[23]

Initially, neither the requirements for creating private government-funded schools nor the rules governing their operation were overly burdensome. Over the years, that situation changed. Just as public schools in the United States and elsewhere have been subjected to an ever larger body of regulations, so, too, have the government-funded private schools of the Netherlands. Today, everything about the shape, operation, and content of Dutch schooling is dictated by the state. Education is officially divided into eight years of primary and four to six years of secondary schooling. All students are promoted automatically from grade to grade at the primary level, not at the independent election of the nation’s schools or teachers, but because this is ordained by the state.[24] At the end of primary schooling, students are streamed into one of four secondary schooling categories:

  • 4 years pre-vocational education (VBO)

  • 4 years general secondary education (MAVO)

  • 5 years general secondary education (HAVO)

  • 6 years pre-university education (VWO).

Parents and students have some input into this streaming process, but grades on a government primary-school-leaving test are the most decisive determining factor.[25]

The curriculum at the secondary level is also prescribed by the state. A new compulsory core curriculum for all secondary schools, the Basisvorming, was introduced by the central government in 1993. The fifteen subjects included in this curriculum, each with matching attainment targets, require from two to three years to complete.[26]

In addition to sharing a core curriculum during the first half of the high-school years, each of the four secondary school streams culminates in its own national secondary-school-leaving test. During the 1990s, students in the latter years of the two academic high-school streams (HAVO and VWO) had some autonomy over what courses they took. That is no longer the case. In March 2001, professor Heleen Verhage of the University of Utrecht wrote that “The freedom which pupils currently have to choose their exam subjects during the senior secondary years of HAVO and VWO will largely disappear, to be replaced by set subject combinations.”[27] Required subject combinations and their associated tests had been introduced to both HAVO and VWO by the end of 2002.

The Dutch state’s control over the content of voucher-funded schools has recently extended beyond curriculum to pedagogical methods. According to Verhage:

Another new feature of the HAVO and VWO systems is the emphasis on independent learning. This means the role of teachers is changing and instead of them being in control of the teaching/learning process, students are now responsible for their own learning process, while the teachers switch to supervision and encouragement.[28]

Anyone who has followed America’s “school wars” will likely be familiar with the now popular expression that a teacher should be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” This refers to the “progressive” view that students should direct their own learning, and that teachers should be present primarily as resources to be consulted as the student sees fit. “Guide on the side” teaching contrasts with the traditionalist view that teachers’ primary job is to convey systems of knowledge and skills to their pupils. Having the state impose either pedagogical philosophy on an entire nation’s schools is an obvious recipe for conflict, and it clearly impedes the specialization and differentiation of schools that are necessary for an effective education market.

Not only does the government of the Netherlands now determine how and what children are taught in voucher schools, it erects significant barriers to the creation of new schools. Professor Benjamin Vermeulen of Vrije University, writes “The current funding conditions are rather strict, and in recent years they have been changed to hinder the establishment of new schools.”[29] To be eligible for voucher funding, prospective school founders must demonstrate that their institutions will be attended by very large numbers of pupils right from the start. The minimum pupil count for a new primary school ranges from 200 to 300, depending on the population density in the vicinity of the proposed school. Given the normal operation of the private education market, this requirement seems Draconian. In other countries, newly created private elementary schools often open their doors with only a handful of students in one or a few grades, and then grow and add new grades in successive years. The need to guarantee hundreds of students in the first year of operation is thus an unrealistically high hurdle for many schools. Remarkably, the minimum pupil count for a newly proposed secondary school is even higher than for primary schools.

The process by which school founders must demonstrate sufficient first year enrollment adds yet another level of difficulty. Rather than simply signing up a list of parents who intend to send their children to the new school, a Byzantine indirect forecasting system must be used. The first required step in performing this forecast is to specify the particular religious denomination or educational philosophy (richting) of the proposed school. Next, the school’s prospective pool of students is extrapolated from existing population figures in the geographical area where it will be created. Finally, open places in existing schools of the same denomination or philosophy are subtracted from the estimate just generated. Consider, for example, someone who wishes to open a new Lutheran primary school in an Amsterdam neighborhood that has an existing Lutheran school with 50 open places. He must show that in this neighborhood there will be 350 or more Lutheran children not already enrolled in other schools.

An obvious problem with this scheme is that it makes it difficult to open new schools, especially in areas already served by one or more unpopular schools of the same philosophy or denomination, since those unpopular schools will likely have many empty places.[30] The effect of rising minimum pupil counts for new schools can be seen in Dutch school creation statistics. Seventy-four new schools were created in 1990, 67 in 1991, 13 in 1993, and only 5 in 1994.[31]

The rising minimum pupil counts for new schools do not, however, constitute iron-clad protection for existing schools, because the minimum pupil counts for continued operation of existing schools have also been rising. During the 1990s, well over a thousand small schools were forced to either merge with other schools or to close down entirely due to rising minimum enrollment figures laid down by the government.

In addition to the above barriers to entry and content controls, the government of Holland also defines teacher accreditation requirements, fixes salary scales, curtails the firing of teachers, sets spending levels, makes it illegal to charge parents more than token facilities fees, and prohibits for-profit schools from receiving government funding.[32]

The Dutch themselves realize that their voucher system has drifted further and further away from a free market and has extinguished most incentives and opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. There is now some talk in Holland about ways to lighten the regulatory burden on voucher schools:

One way is to diminish regulation and bureaucracy, e.g. in the negotiations between the government and intermediate representing organisations [sic] and bodies. Thus schools themselves - and not their representing bodies - should obtain real entrepreneurial power and tools. This is not easy path [sic], but it is viewed as of crucial importance for the future quality and status of existing schools. Another way to enhance this development could be the experimental introduction of so called “Regulation free schools”,… which are allowed to make their own business and innovation plan without hindrance of government regulation. Members of Parliament have asked for a proposal, but will they accept all of its consequences?[33]

Thus far, the answer appears to be no. The Dutch deregulatory debate has not made the leap from words into action. As already observed, voucher schools have become more heavily regulated in recent years, not less. In fact, given the language in the above quotation, it sounds as though some Dutch policy analysts feel they need to introduce what amounts to a charter school program to reinvigorate their ossified voucher program.

The Dutch system has also begun to falter in the very area it was specifically designed to address: maintaining social harmony. Until the late 20th century, Holland was overwhelmingly dominated by Dutch-speaking citizens who were either Christian or were the secular descendants of Christian ancestors. This relatively homogenous ethnic and religious makeup meant that relatively few Dutch taxpayers strongly objected to being taxed to pay for schools outside their own particular denomination — virtually all the state-subsidized private schools were Christian, with a few mainstream secular institutions along for the ride. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s, as increasing immigration brought with it a growing minority of non-Dutch speaking Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. In addition to their religious and linguistic differences, some of these immigrants also brought with them ideas about individual freedom that differed substantially from those of the native population. Modern Holland considers itself to be a very progressive place, an international leader in the equal treatment of women and men, gays and straights, and a country well known for its tolerance of drug use. The culture of many conservative Muslim immigrants differs sharply from the Dutch mainstream on these and other points.

Naturally Holland’s new minority population has sought to create schools that reflect its own views and to obtain government funding for these schools in accordance with Dutch law. According to a 2002 report by the Dutch intelligence service (the BVD), about one in five of these government-funded Islamic schools “receives money from the radical Islamic organisation [sic] Al Waqf al Islami, or has members of the school governors who are allied to radical Muslim organizations.”[34] A subsequent series of visits to these schools by officials of the government’s Schools Inspectorate failed to note any militant teaching or incitement to violence, while acknowledging that teachers could simply have moderated their instruction in the presence of the government observers.[35]

Faced with the prospect of funding schools that espouse beliefs they find objectionable, many Dutch voters have agitated for limits on the creation of Muslim schools, and/or on the content of their curricula. Direct legislative efforts to do so have failed up to now, though more subtle approaches have begun to appear. One such approach is a proposed limit on the percentage of a school’s student population comprised of immigrant/minority children. Ostensibly a measure to improve ethnic, racial, and socio-economic integration, the plan could effectively make it impossible to create new government-funded Islamic schools. While explicit barriers to the creation of conservative Muslim schools would almost certainly violate the Dutch constitution, it seems likely that cleverly crafted indirect barriers would pass constitutional muster.

Universal Vouchers in Chile

Chile’s voucher-like program was imposed by the pro-market military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1981. All regulations controlling teachers’ salaries and working conditions were eliminated, teachers’ unions were outlawed, and private schools were given the legal right to receive per-pupil funding directly from the state. Private schools could not charge fees over and above the per-pupil subsidy, whereas public schools often received special funding from their municipal governments in addition to the voucher. This funding arrangement put a comparatively greater burden on newly created private schools since they needed to finance their facilities from the voucher whereas public schools already owned their own facilities.

When the country transitioned to democracy in 1990 with the election of a socialist government, most of the voucher program’s essential elements were preserved. A notable exception was the reestablishment of a nationwide teachers’ union and the reintroduction of state controls over the education labor market as laid out in the Estatuto Docente (Educational Statute) of 1991 and its subsequent amendments.[36] Some provisions of the law, such as detailed wage scales and career ladders, apply only to government owned schools, but an extensive array of regulatory minutiae also applies to private — especially subsidized private — institutions. The minimum teacher’s salary,[37] the duration and renewability of teachers’ contracts,[38] the school’s obligation to pay certain teacher transportation costs,[39] and restrictions on the hiring of specialty teachers[40] are just a few of the employment issues now fixed in law for all private schools. For state subsidized private schools, i.e., those participating in the voucher program, there are also limits on the number of hours a teacher is allowed to teach per week, the total number of hours teachers are allowed to work per week, and the fraction of total work hours that can be spent teaching. No single class may last more than 45 minutes and nighttime work hours are also limited by law.[41]

Another substantive change was made to the voucher program in 1993: subsidized private schools gained the right to charge parents a partial tuition co-payment, if they so chose. Until that year, a subsidized school that charged parents any amount of tuition lost all voucher funding. Since 1993, partial co-payments have been allowed, with the value of the government voucher decreasing as the parental co-payment increases. The maximum allowed size for co-payments is also limited by law. It is known that forty percent of private subsidized schools, enrolling about 65 percent of students in the subsidized private sector, began charging co-payments by 1996,[42] but the effects of these co-payments on educational conditions and outcomes have not been widely studied.