Many countries are struggling to reconcile their aspirations for greater flexibility and more opportunities for parents to choose their child’s school with the need to ensure quality, equity and coherence in their school systems. But our evidence at the OECD suggests that this is an achievable goal. School choice, in and of itself, neither assures nor undermines the quality of education. What matters are smart policies that maximise the benefits of choice while minimising the risks, and establishing a level playing field for all providers to contribute to the school system.
Here is what we learned at the OECD:
First, school choice will only generate the anticipated benefits when the choice is real, relevant and meaningful, i.e., when parents can choose an important aspect of their child’s education, such as the pedagogical approaches used to teach them. If schools are not allowed to respond to diverse student populations, and to distinguish themselves from each other, choice is meaningless. In turn, private schools need to accept the public steering and accountability mechanisms that ensure the attainment of public policy objectives in exchange for the funding they receive from the public purse. They should also uphold the basic tenets of fairness and justice in their operations, including non-discrimination among applications for places in the school, and adherence to public health and safety standards.
Second, create a level playing field for all providers to enter the system. School choice and school vouchers allow other education providers to enter the system. When private schools are invited to be part of the “functionally public” education system, they should have the capacity to offer a similar range of options for courses as public schools do. This implies that these schools should receive a commensurate level of public funding. When expanding school choice and vouchers for private schools, policies should also ensure that public schools are granted greater autonomy.
Third, ensure that all parents can exercise their right to choose a school of their preference. All parents must be able to exercise their right to choose the school of their preference; that means government and schools need to invest in developing their relationships with parents and local communities, and help parents make informed decisions. Not all parents can make sense of the information they are provided and make informed decisions. Middle-class families tend to reap more benefits from a more open school system than working-class parents who might feel more constrained in their choice because of poor information or financial considerations. Developing school choice policies thus also entails an element of capacity building among families.
Fourth, provide the checks and balances that prevent choice from leading to more inequity and segregation. The risk that school choice and voucher systems result in higher levels of social segregation among schools, less social and cultural heterogeneity within schools, and less access to high-quality education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is real, but this risk can be mitigated by the way the systems are designed. For example, the Flemish Community of Belgium weights the funding of schools according to specific criteria so that disadvantaged children generate more resources for schools. Countries also regulate the conditions under which schools can develop access and selection policies.
Fifth, work to make education systems more demand-sensitive. School choice is only one way through which parents and local communities can have a greater impact on, and voice in, education. Indeed, school choice works more effectively in a participatory and inclusive climate. School autonomy, the professionalisation of teachers and school leaders, and student participation increase as parents are granted greater choice of schools. The benefits of school choice will only materialise in an environment where parents, students, external stakeholders and the local community can participate in the school and have their voices heard and appreciated.
Not least, the more flexibility there is in the school system, the stronger public policy needs to be. While greater school autonomy, decentralisation and a more demand-driven school system seek to devolve decision making to the frontline, education authorities need to maintain a strategic vision and clear guidelines for education, and offer meaningful feedback to local school networks and individual schools. In other words, only through a concerted effort by more central and local education authorities will school choice benefit of all students.