oppose school vouchers. On the other hand, you probably support school vouchers.
These are the conflicting results of two different public opinion poll questions
published in the past few weeks.
education magazine Phi Delta Kappan asked, "Do you favor or oppose
allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public
just over half the public said it was opposed. A poll conducted by the
Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation asked the same question and got the same
Friedman Foundation also asked, "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and
parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?"
Nearly two-thirds of the public favored the idea.
volatility can also be seen in voters’ responses to school-voucher ballot
questions. In 2000, opinion polls initially showed vouchers enjoying
considerable public support in both Michigan and California. Both measures
eventually went down to resounding defeats.
swings in public support for school choice can be traced largely to a single
factor: fear of the unknown.
typically portray comprehensive school-choice programs as new and untested. They
predict that such programs will fail to improve overall academic achievement,
hurt poor families, tear apart the fabric of society and drive up the cost of
They forecast doom, and the public retreats in fear.
may believe these things to be true. They are not.
I have spent
the past decade studying
historical education systems from all over the globe, and there are many
examples of competitive education marketplaces that are driven successfully by
the choices of parents.
education system in the world that expanded schooling beyond a tiny ruling elite
was the free education market of ancient Athens. For the past 87 years, the
Netherlands has enjoyed a school-voucher program that is available to children
nationwide for either public or private education. In the 25 centuries that
elapsed between these two civilizations, competition and parental choice have
been tried repeatedly on scales both large and small. School choice has proven
its worth many times over.
three-quarters of all Dutch children attend private schools with financial
assistance from the government. Has this hurt the nation’s academic performance?
Dutch high school seniors and recent graduates score
first in the world in mathematics, second in science, and
fourth in literacy. By comparison, American seniors and recent graduates
score 19th in math, 16th in science, and 12th
forces hurt those Dutch students who have chosen to remain in public schools?
No, they also do very well, performing just slightly below the level of students
in Catholic schools and about even with students in Protestant schools. This
should come as no surprise, since Dutch public school students can easily
transfer to a private school if they become dissatisfied with the education they
lower-income families? As it turns out, the average income of students in the
country’s high-performing Catholic schools is below that in its public
schools. As noted above,
they do better academically nonetheless.
assistance for private-school tuition driven up the cost of education? The Dutch
spend only $6,000 per pupil annually, compared to the nearly $10,000 spent in
U.S. public schools. If every child in America were given a similar $6,000
school voucher, including the 10 percent of children currently enrolled in
private schools, U.S. taxpayers would save $170 billion dollars a year. Even
with a larger voucher, the savings would be substantial.
society been Balkanized into warring factions by unfettered parental choice? On
the contrary, the Dutch voucher system was adopted specifically because it could
defuse the terrible social conflict that had arisen over that country’s
earlier public school monopoly. Everyone had wanted the schools to reflect their
own views and to reject views they opposed, but given the many different groups
comprising Dutch society, this led to a never-ending series of conflicts. (Sound
familiar?) Educational choice successfully allowed Dutch families to obtain the sort of
schooling they valued for their children without foisting their preferences on
their neighbors. As a result, the earlier social tensions dissipated.
All this might
sound like a sales pitch for introducing a Dutch-style voucher program. It
isn’t. As it happens,
research suggests that there are
even better ways to
reintroduce the benefits of parental choice and competition in education.
Still, market-based approaches to education have an even longer history than
state-run public schooling, and their record is extremely favorable so long as
all families have access to the education marketplace.
Back in the
1990s, a Gallup Poll surveyed public opinion on school vouchers. The question
they used explained how the system would work and mentioned that it already
existed in other countries. Seventy percent of the general public and 76 percent
of public-school parents said we should adopt such a system in America.
As Americans learn more about school-choice programs and their record of success, and as they learn that the dire predictions of the critics are mistaken, they will not fear freedom in education. What they will fear is the status quo.
Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.
Gallup Organization, Inc. "The People's Poll on Schools and School Choice: A
Gallup Survey," (Princeton, N.J.: 1992), p. 16.