December 1, 1997
Vouchers And Teachers' Unions
Opposition to school choice in Canada is most vehement in the leadership of teachers' unions. This is unfortunate because their counterparts in countries that use school vouchers think very differently.
The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI), a Virginia-based think tank, surveyed 50 teachers' associations in a dozen countries and found that educators who have actually worked in a voucher system are strong supporters of it. Further, they believe it confers real strength on the public school system.
The concept of the voucher system first received North American exposure 30 years ago through the work of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Vouchers change the focus of school funding. Instead of sending money to school divisions, government treasuries send a grant or voucher to parents, who spend it at the school of their choice.
This method's merits lie in its focus on outcomes and customer satisfaction. Not happy with your child's progress? Take your voucher and find a better school. Vouchers empower consumers of school services because they allow parents to affect change quickly if their children are short-changed at school. They transform schools because vouchers introduce an accountability mechanism with more influence than traditional bureaucratic evaluation methods.
Forty-eight teachers' unions around the world responded to the AdTI survey and less than a quarter opposed market-based school reforms such as vouchers. In countries with significant experience with choice-based systems, more than half the unions backed voucher programs, and only seven per cent were hostile to them. Union officials in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and Denmark claimed school choice "works," even when it includes government support for private schools.
Fervent opposition to school choice by most teachers' unions in the United States and Canada centers around the claim vouchers will "destroy public education" by creating a two-tier system. Affluent parents will augment the basic stipend and send their children to elitist academies, while the poor public schools will wither away, stuck with the dregs.
However, in the real world, in countries with voucher-style systems, these pessimistic predictions have proven false. In Ireland, for instance, 99% of education expenditures are in public schools. The figures for other countries support this: Hungary, 97%; Denmark, 95%; Sweden and New Zealand, 94%; Australia, 93%; and Russia, 89%.
In Alberta, allowing choice has hardly compromised the public schools. Quite the opposite. The public system is demonstrably more vibrant and more focused on results. All the schools proudly trumpet their achievements in an atmosphere of healthy competition for students.
The AdTI survey quotes Mrs. Roth of the Danish Union of Teachers: "Our choice system has been in operation for a period of over thirty years, and we have a strong public education system. We view the public schools and the private schools as working together."
Sweden's experience with a choice-based model has led to a renaissance of diversity. "We now have German schools, Finnish schools, Estonian schools," comments Sven Kinnander of the National Union of Teachers. "We now have different pedagogical orientations and teaching methods."
One surprising result of the survey involves teachers' pay in "choice" countries. The gap between salary levels in public and private schools is significantly less than in "non-choice" countries. Teachers' union dues in these countries are also much lower. AdTI analysts concluded that, where school choice prevails, a number of unions compete for membership. This contrasts with the usual "one big shop" typical in North America.
When you hear the prophets of gloom and doom preaching the dangers of choice, throw back an old chestnut: "Don't knock it until you've tried it."
The Alexis de Tocqueville study suggests choice works.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."