Truly Progressive Education Reform
Aug 16, 2009 Other 1975 Views
Curiously, the idea of using government money to help send children to private schools is considered a very right-wing, conservative notion. Granted, in the U.S. it is mostly Republicans who support the concept, with Democrats against. Thus we have the odd situation of liberals opposing a government hand-out that has the potential to mostly benefit the poor and minorities. Not very progressive of them.
Perhaps they could take a lesson from their intellectual cousins in Europe, particularly Sweden. While the Swedes don't exactly have a reputation of being conservative in the American tradition, one thing they have in common is their embrace of choice in education. In 1992, Sweden introduced a school choice system built around a virtual voucher, which, according to a recent BBC report, "is equivalent in value to the average cost of educating a child in the local state school.... Parents can use this voucher' to 'buy' a place at the school of their choice. The idea is that funding follows the pupil and, in this way, the state supports the schools that are most popular with parents."
The program has led to something of a revolution in education. Prior to the 1992 legislation, there were practically no private schools in Sweden, and fewer than 2 percent of students attended one. According to the Hoover Institute, there are now nearly 800 private schools, and the number of children attending them has quadrupled. The International Herald Tribune reports that about 17 percent of high-schoolers and 9 percent of elementary school students attend a private school. Schools are being built in both affluent and working-class neighborhoods. Few of them are religious-based.
Swedish parents love the school choice program. Soon after the program went in to effect, a poll conducted by the National Agency of Education found that "85 per cent of Swedes value their new school choice rights" and "59 per cent of Swedish parents think that teachers work harder when there is school choice." Surprisingly, Lärarförbundet, the Swedish Teachers Union, also supports the policy, mostly because government regulations prevent private schools from charging top-up fees or selecting students. "[A]ny private school participating in the scheme cannot charge any additional fees," explains the BBC. "Nor can the private schools select pupils on any basis other than first-come-first-served."
Private schools are proving to be good business, too. Corporations run 30 percent of independent schools. It is a profitable enterprise. "Bure Equity... is the largest private school operator in Sweden and is expanding rapidly," reports the International Herald Tribune. "In the first quarter of this year, net profit for its education portfolio rose 33 percent to $3 million."
Sweden is not the only progressive democracy to actually be progressive and embrace school choice. Writing for the Cato Institute, education scholar David Salisbury notes, "In the Netherlands, nearly 76 percent of school-age children attend private schools with state money going to the chosen school." Other nations which we might not think of as particularly progressive have dabbled in school choice. According to Salisbury, "School choice also exists in Chile, where 46 percent of students enroll in private schools. Even some former communist countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic allow parents to pay for private schools with public funds." Economically disadvantaged Hungarians in particular benefit, because "in Hungary... most new private schools have emerged in poor inner-city or rural areas, where access to good public schools is most limited."
How about here in the good ol' USA? Alas, when it comes to school choice, the liberals of the snowy Nordic north and the ex-communists of Mitteleuropa have us beat. Only just over a dozen states and the District of Columbia have a system facilitating private school choice. (Hawaii is not one of those states.) This despite the fact that polls consistently show about half of Americans support some sort of private school choice program, such as vouchers, with African-Americans and Latinos being especially open to the concept. Yet, the National Education Association (NEA), a national teacher's union, brags on its website of having "long opposed private school tuition vouchers," and most Democrats have been perfectly willing to join in this opposition. However, not all Democrats march in lockstep with the NEA. In a recent National Review, Robert Verbruggen reports, "Democrats have supported school-choice initiatives in Maryland, New Jersey, and Iowa" as well as New Orleans.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA), sadly, has more in common with the NEA than Sweden's Lärarförbundet. In 2006, HSTA President Roger Takabayashi explained what criteria HSTA used in supporting candidates in the primary election: "We looked at the candidates' stands on the issues facing public education at both the local and national levels. These include the threat of vouchers and tuition tax subsidies, which undermine public school funding and encourage students to move from public to private schools, and the need to improve the so-called No Child Left Behind Act."
Why on earth would Hawaii's parents want to their kids to "move from public to private schools"? Perhaps because, according to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 80 percent of Hawaii students in 8th grade are not ranked "proficient" in reading, and 79 percent of Hawaii students in 8th grade are not ranked "proficient" in math. The cost of this "education"? Quite a bit; Hawaii spends nearly $14,000 annually schooling each pupil.
So we're back to the strange paradox of education policy. School choice offers hope of real social justice to the poor and disenfranchised, yet here in the U.S.--and especially in the proudly liberal state of Hawaii-it is opposed by unions and many Democrats, yet supported by conservatives and Republicans. Compared to their fellow educators in Sweden, the NEA, HSTA, and their allies seem rather reactionary. Who, then, are the real progressives?