On School Vouchers: Responsive and Vibrant Education

Education should grant students’ knowledge about the universe, prepare them for their professional lives, and satisfy their human curiosity. Any education system that sets out to achieve these objectives, however, must be responsive to the demands of the students it serves.

School vouchers are one solution for increasing the responsiveness of schools. In voucher systems, the state funds private and public education by giving taxpayers the option of choosing to reclaim the government’s per-pupil-expenditure, per child, in the form of a ‘voucher,’ which can then be spent on public schooling alternatives, such as private schools, homeschooling, boarding school, etc.

In Sweden, for instance, students are free to attend independent schools that receive funding based on their number of enrollees. These schools are not permitted to select students based on their academic performance and instead utilize a ‘first come, first serve’ admission policy. Furthermore, these schools cannot charge fees in excess of the voucher.

Although there is no consensus on the most optimal path of implementation, proponents of the voucher system argue that adopting them would introduce competition into the education system, promoting experimental teaching methods and democratizing education. I believe that moving toward the Swedish model could achieve these outcomes in Canada.

First, the voucher system creates incentives for schools to improve. Unlike Canada’s public education system, which assigns students to particular institutions, vouchers compel pupils (and their parents) to choose from a variety of competing schools. To attract new students from the public system, for instance, independent schools would need to offer superior services at a comparable cost. Furthermore, public schools would also need to compete or face the risk of losing enrollees (and, thus, funding).  In order to stay afloat, therefore, public schools would have to lower costs or improve standards.

Second, voucher systems allow for greater educational innovation. Canada’s current system, on the contrary, prevents innovation in two ways: 1) requiring government approval (which is burdensome) and 2) standardization.

Public schools take orders from their respective Departments of Education and, thus, cannot significantly alter their composition without government decree. Independent schools, however, retain the ability to tweak their policies in response to perceived problems and opportunities in a freer fashion.

While it is true that public education systems can still be innovative, the rate of innovation is much slower (for the reasons listed above). It is more difficult, for instance, to implement new policies throughout an entire province than at an independent school (of which there are many, thus increasing the level of experimentation and innovation).

Finally, implementing a voucher system would democratize education. Canadian schools are accountable to their respective provincial governments, which are (in essence) accountable to the electorate. Because of this indirectness, though, it is much harder for students and their parents to demand change at their respective institutions.

The voucher system, therefore, reinforces accountability. Furthermore, by eschewing bureaucratization and standardization, independent schools can respond to their own problems directly. They are also more likely to respond to students and their parents because, as in any business venture, consumers can ‘vote with their feet’ and leave if they are unsatisfied. In this way, the Canadian system can benefit by introducing a voucher system that obliges schools to act accountable toward their students, while also being responsive to changing problems, attitudes, and technologies.

Nevertheless, adopting this system would be politically difficult in any jurisdiction. Politicians, however, should at least consider the idea, for the sake of students.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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