While the fourth week in January has been designated National School Choice Week in America, people throughout the world are also thinking about choice. With student learning and achievement problems plaguing countries around the globe, the 1,200 education leaders attending the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, Qatar, had much to consider. Despite the varied circumstances facing children of different nations, a number of speakers representing a variety of countries and organizations recommended empowering parents and children through school choice in order to meet the needs of students and improve the delivery of educational services.
In its second year, the WISE gatherings are organized by the Qatar Foundation under the patronage of Her Highness Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of Qatar’s ruling emir. WISE offers the unique opportunity for policymakers and practitioners from all parts of the world to learn about the cutting-edge solutions to the seemingly intractable education problems in their homelands.
At one breakout session, Charles Clark, former British education and skills minister, said the five elements needed to improve schooling were effective school leadership, high-quality teachers, high aspirations and standards, modern curricula, and modern resources. Perhaps his most important point addressed the issue of accountability.
Clark said school leaders should be accountable, not just to higher-ups in the school system and the government, but to the community. Yet, how should such community accountability be promoted?
Steen Jorgensen, a Danish-born official at the World Bank, answered that question by recommending that public funding of education should be shifted to parents and their children through school-choice vouchers. Under such a system, funding would attach to the child and follow him or her to whichever school, public or private, he or she chooses to attend. He argued that giving parents vouchers would increase their involvement in the education of their children, a phenomenon that has occurred under Sweden’s successful universal voucher program.
Further, according to Jorgensen, a school-choice voucher system would reward results and promote accountability through the choice-making of parents. Through this education marketplace, the community of parents and their children can use their freedom of choice to hold schools accountable.
Jorgensen noted that voucher systems can increase equity among all people in a country and that there’s little compelling evidence to show that it decreases equity. No wonder, then, that in Qatar, where the number of foreign-born residents dwarfs the number of native-born Qatari citizens, the government is planning to make available school-choice vouchers to all the country’s parents and their children, Qatari and non-Qatari alike.
Sabah Al-Haidoos, director of the Education Institute at Qatar’s Supreme Education Council, told WISE attendees that Qatar believes in a decentralized education system. Next year under Qatar’s universal voucher program, she said, each elementary school child will be eligible for a $4,500 voucher, while every high school student will be eligible for a voucher worth $5,500.
Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University in New Orleans, echoed the sentiments of Al-Haidoos. Cowen said the hallmarks of the rebuilt and much-improved post-Katrina New Orleans school system included decentralization, school choice, human capital (i.e., better principals and teachers), and strong accountability. The accountability, autonomy and competition of the new system, which emphasizes independent public charter schools, has reduced the number of failing from 65 percent to 20 percent, according to Cowen. What this proves, he noted, is that while money is important, how it is spent is more important.
Defenders of the education status quo won’t be happy with these suggestions. Charles Clark said the education-vested interests argue that things have been done a certain way for decades and that’s the way it should be done now and forever.
However, the growing sentiment for school choice articulated by the diverse spectrum of WISE speakers shows that the future belongs to reformers, not reactionaries.
Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He attended the 2010 World Innovation Summit for Education.