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May 04, 2007


Stephen Downes

What this story shows is that if you pick and chose your examples you can make it look like almost anything is working.

But readers should be tipped off by the story's use of mostly inaccessible results from Colombia and Sweden rather than cases from the United States, where vouchers have been attempted most extensively.

This is probably because, despite millions of dollars in promotion and a substantial political lobby, study after study in the U.S. is showing vouchers to be failing. http://www.nea.org/vouchers/02voutrack.html

I have a great fondness for Colombia, but I must say, when the Economist cites the Colombian school system as a model for U.S. states to follow, it smacks of desperation.

I half expected the article to cite teh Edmonton School Board, where school choice is in fact working in the best interests of students.

But of course, the Edmonton system is completely publicly funded - there aren't private schools with special agendas sniping around the margins of the system.

The voucher system - despite the publicity - is not designed to engender school choice. It is instead designed as a way to generate public funding for private schools.

There is substantial evidence that a private system does not work. A private school has to serve too many masters - and in particularly, shareholders - leaving any real concern about a child's education far behind.

The Economist once had a good reputation. These days, it is nothing but a fountain of ill-disguised propaganda with a disregard for reason and common sense that is embarrassing.

Graham Glass

Hi Stephen,

I thought that the observations about Sweden were the most relevant, which is why I chose to quote the parts of the article about Sweden rather than Columbia.

Sweden is a highly regarded country that usually ranks in the top 10 countries with regards to quality of education and standard of living. The fact that the voucher system is flourishing in Sweden and has risen from 1% to 10% in a short amount of time seems like a valuable data point.

Regarding the actual implementation of a voucher system, Sweden did it right; they provided true choice to the parents, they provided comparable funding, and they put few governmental restrictions. The result is a growing ecosystem that is attracting entrepreneurs that are dedicated to providing great education at a good price. Furthermore, they can only succeed by satisfying their customers; namely the parents and their children.

The examples you mention, however, do not represent a real attempt to implement a voucher system. They included so many restrictions and constraints that they were doomed to fail from the start. For that reason, they do not provide any evidence whatsoever for the pros or cons of a voucher system.

I don't understand why you call the results that the Economist quotes "inaccessible". Sweden is an open country that anyone can visit and study.

I'll address these points and your point re: private systems somehow being inferior because they have to answer to shareholders in a subsequent post.

Last of all, I haven't noticed any degradation in the quality of the Economist's output over the last 10 years, or a lessening of their reputation for that matter. They are definitely fans of the free market system, so clearly they would offend the sensibilities of someone who prefers government monopolies over consumer-driven choice.


Bob Weeks

I find it interesting that someone who complains about the reliability or veracity of a publication would cite evidence from the teachers union: one of the most powerful political lobbys in the US. One of the most harmful to children, too.

Who is it that private schools have to satisfy as their masters? It is only the parents, as without satisfying parents, the schools will have no more students, and they will cease to exist.

Public schools, on the other hands, need to satisfy only the education bureaucracy, and it doesn't have the best interests of children as its first goal.

If you are satisfied with public schools, you are satisfied with this:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third of Kansas eighth-graders (my state) are considered “proficient” in mathematics, reading, and writing.

A recent study of high school transcripts by the same organization found that students are taking more college-prep courses and receiving higher grades in these courses, yet math and reading test scores for these students are falling to as low as they've been since the early 1990s.

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research found that “over half the graduates of four-year colleges and three-quarters of the graduates of junior and community colleges could not be categorized as possessing these 'proficient' skills.” At what skills are they not proficient? Understanding newspaper editorials was one such skill.

Something has to change. The present system of public schools is too entrenched to be reformed.

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