Teachers’ unions have traditionally opposed the idea of school choice, which they see as a direct threat to our system of universal primary and secondary education.
This reasoning is flawed. In fact, more choice tends to strengthen public schools, as recent evidence from Denmark indicates. In September, the Fraser Institute took a look at the Danish experience with public school vouchers. It turns out that schools there were all better off when parents are allowed to shop around.
The Danes have a long history of offering a diversified school product, a result of their fervent embrace of religious autonomy and parental control over education. When they made basic education compulsory in 1849, they also guaranteed parents would be able to send their children to the schools of their choice for whatever reasons moved them, whether religious, academic or political.
Vouchers in Denmark pay about 75% of the full cost of sending a child to private school. Believing that parental interest and control would suffer if the state footed the whole bill, the government requires families to pay around $720 a year for each child enrolled in an independent school. This small out-of-pocket touch makes parents "price-sensitive" customers. More basically, choice produces a powerful incentive for results. Compare, the competitive, choice-based Danish model with our own "free", cost-plus monopoly system. The Danes educate a student for under $2900 and score higher on international literacy and math tests. Manitobans pay about $7000 per public school student, even though results are lower.
The Danes — including those in the Education Ministry — believe wider choice has improved government schools. To quote the Fraser report, "Danish municipal schools imitate successful practices pioneered in the independent sector because they risk losing pupils and popular support if they do not." According to the OECD, "Municipal schools are starting to replicate the [independent school] model of parental involvement. . . ."
In other words, competition improves quality and encourages innovation. Nor have the public schools turned into dumping grounds for disadvantaged or neglected children, as the opponents of choice have regularly predicted. Government schools are not regarded as inferior precisely because they have tuned up their offerings in response to the danger of losing voucher support.
During the 1980s, the number of parents choosing independent schools grew by 50%. Once the municipal schools started to upgrade their performance, though, the flight diminished. Private schools captured only eight percent of the market in 1982. By 1994, that number had risen to eleven percent. The latest measurement has it at thirteen percent.
Up to age 16, Danish children attend schools that are completely autonomous from direct government control of budgets and curriculum. As long as they teach the basic subjects and maintain voucher support, they are free to diversify. The only condition that circumscribes this freedom is a rule that they must pay their teachers the same as the municipal schools. Since this ties up almost two-thirds of their budgets, it is a significant problem.
On the other hand, their autonomy liberates them from many of the high administrative overheads Canadians have grown to tolerate. Only five administrators at the Ministry oversee the 67,000 students who attend independent Danish schools, while thousands are somehow needed Canuck-side to run our public ones.
A drawback of the Danish system becomes evident after students reach the age of 16, when compulsory attendance ends. Upper secondary schools are highly regulated and the curriculum strictly defined. These tend, like Canada’s monopoly public schools, to be "expensive without being particularly good."
Even with these flaws, the Danish public school system offers us a well-tested example of the superior productiveness of voucher financing. Costs have been contained by competition for students, and yet Danes enjoy educational alternatives unmatched in the world.
Every political party in Denmark now supports the voucher system.