Could a voucher policy work here?

Reich’s views are interesting


Some school vouchers systems have been operating in the States for some time . We have mentioned before Indiana’s recent vote for vouchers. Ohio has also administered voucher schemes. Vermont was the first state  to institute  a school  choice  programme providing   tuition  to  students  in  towns  that  did  not  have  a  high school,  so that those students  could attend a public or private school  outside the district. The”Milwaukee  Parental  Choice  Program”enacted  in  April   1990,was   the  first  school choice  programme  in  the  United  States  to  specifically  allow parents to  choose private schools over competing local public  schools. A Harvard University investigation of Wisconsin’s voucher scheme, which is open  to parents on low incomes, found that standards were raised in all schools that faced competition from private rivals, and that the greater the competition the bigger the improvement. But it hasn’t been easy. All these schemes have faced legal challenges and been attacked by political opponents. The Right tend to favour vouchers the Left are against.

Although much of the debate on vouchers in the States focuses on vouchers for private schools, some pro-voucher advocates want vouchers to be made available specifically for the best public schools so that families, particularly in  the most disadvantaged areas, can shop around and access these schools.  Professor Robert Reich, for instance, believes that vouchers should be available in inverse proportion to income.  He believes that the risk of most school voucher proposals is that the poorest children-normally those with the biggest learning or behavioural problems-would be sorted together into the least-desirable (sink) schools. One way to avoid this would be to make the size of the voucher proportional to family need. Children from the very poorest families would have the largest and most valuable vouchers, thereby making the children sufficiently attractive for good schools to want to compete for them.

Elsewhere, in Australia, over a third of children are educated at private schools where the average fee paid at an independent school is approximately AUS$5,000 – roughly equivalent to £3,000. This system has transformed the Australian independent sector, which used to be dominated by a handful of extremely prestigious and concomitantly expensive schools, into a genuinely broad-based sector that caters, and is accessible  to a much wider segment of society. It is true, though, that access is still limited for the very poorest. It is popular with the aspiring classes – not merely the salaried professional classes, but to the wider middle class to which far more people belong. But the politics suggest that it wont happen here, at least not under this Government. Could one ever envisage David Cameron (Eton), Osborne (St Pauls) and Nick Clegg (Westminster) wanting to push a vouchers system through. Probably not. This is a government, after all, that has eschewed private sector involvement in the Free schools initiative because of the ‘politics’. So, the actual merits of voucher schemes  and the fact that vouchers  might help the most disadvantaged pupils-call it the Robert Reich model- are all but irrelevant in determining its viability because of  ‘the politics’. Vouchers are a totemic issue for the left (and the right) in education policy so it would mean opening another front which would give teaching unions another issue to coalesce around, to fight the government. And of course there would almost certainly be legal challenges here too.

However,Reich’s idea merits  closer examination. The Right in America like the idea of vouchers a lot but not the idea of vouchers in inverse proportion to income. The Left don’t like the idea of vouchers much but like the idea of funding support for the most disadvantaged pupils to ease access to the best schools and to break the cycle of disadvantage- poor school, poor qualifications,poor job-all transferred seamlessly  to the next generation. Might some common ground be found on vouchers, one wonders?


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