Why parental choice in education doesn’t work

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09 October 2014 by ATL
I have long been an advocate for parental choice in education. It’s what good parents do, but there is a downside to parental choice which has caused schools here in Northern Ireland to become much more socially segregated.

We bus huge numbers of schoolchildren here away from their local schools every day. Northern Ireland’s school travel budget is greater than the Republic of Ireland’s - a jurisdiction three times larger. This hasn’t happened only in Northern Ireland. The same problems linked to parental choice have become apparent in many other countries.

In 1989 New Zealand embarked on the most dramatic and far-reaching transformation of a public school system by any industrialised country. Under a programme known as “Tomorrow's Schools” parents were allowed to send their children to any school. The trouble was, the more knowledgeable and wealthy parents took advantage of the options to fill up the seats in the best schools. With nowhere to go, other students were forced to return to their previous schools which became far more polarized along racial and socioeconomic lines than before.

Realising its programme was not working the government began slowly pulling back. This failed experiment demonstrated that educational choice usually benefits a small group who have the time, knowledge and money to use the system to their advantage.

Milwaukee is home to America’s oldest and largest school voucher programme - the Milwaukee Parental Choice Programme. After starting with just 300 students in 1990, the programme enrolled almost 25,000 students last year. With open-enrollment programmes, magnet schools, private schools, charter schools and public schools Milwaukee is one of the most choice rich educational environments in America.

If choice was the answer Milwaukee should be at the top of America’s urban districts, but it’s near the bottom. In the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests (which are given to a nationally representative sample in every state) Milwaukee students were two years below average in maths and reading. Milwaukee schools are ranked among the lowest performing of urban districts, ranking just above Detroit.

Finland is a country which excels at education, educating not just an elitist group but all its children to the highest levels. Since 2000 Finland has been in the top three countries on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Progress in Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

These tests are carried out every three years to compare abilities in reading, maths and science among 15-year-olds.

There are no private schools in Finland. Choice is almost non-existent and the vast majority of children go to their local school. Finland’s dream was to provide a good public education for every child regardless of where they went to school or what kind of family they came from.

Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition but on cooperation and not on choice but equity.

By Jim Curran. Jim is a teacher in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, a psychologist and committee member of the Reading Reform Foundation.

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