The New Statesman (subscription required) just published this article about why school vouchers would not have a beneficial impact in Britain. I wrote it in a fit of irritation after hearing the know-all Melanie Phillips on the radio expressing her support for vouchers, and invoking the Swedish and Dutch experiences. The Swedish voucher scheme has been evaluated positively (and frequently) by Bergstrom and Sandstrom. But it is tiny, and if you read the version of their study put out by the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation you’ll find no evidence of improved scores, and that it is regulated in a way that is unimaginable in the US or UK. The Dutch experience is very different—most children attend private schools on what is effectively a voucher system, but the State subjects all schools to heavy regulation, and the vouchers are highly progressive (schools get paid much more for low-income kids, kids from homes with low levels of parental education, kids from non-Dutch speaking homes). The Netherlands is consistently a pretty high performer in international comparisons of children’s achievement. But there is no particular reason to think this is due to their having private schools. The virtual elimination of child poverty, for example, might be responsible. My response to Phillips on the comparison is this: you give us high marginal tax rates, low levels of inequality and child poverty, etc, and I’ll give you progressive school vouchers.
Anyway, that’s the background—the article ignores the other Northern Europeans, and concentrates on the differences between the US and the UK. Here it is:
Vouchers, it may seem, are an idea whose time has come. The proposal to give
parents a voucher representing the cost of their children’s annual education
which can they can “spend” at the school of their choice (private or state)
is not only Tory policy, it is also finding favour in 10 Downing Street.
Andrew Adonis, one of Tony Blair’s top advisers, has recently visited
Milwaukee, the Mecca for both US and British voucher advocates. John
Norquist, mayor of Milwaukee, has paid a return visit to London.
I too admire the Milwaukee voucher scheme – actually known as “the Milwaukee
public choice program”. But is it really transferable to Britain? It
exclusively serves low-income families; only children from households with
incomes of less than 75 per cent above the poverty line are eligible. The
voucher pays private schools about two-thirds the per pupil amount used in
the local state schools. The private schools cannot ask the parents for
The schools must abide by other regulations. They are not allowed to select
among the voucher applicants. They cannot discriminate on the basis of
religious affiliation, race, or even past achievement or behaviour record.
They can reject children with special needs only if they do not already have
paying children with that particular need on the school roll. If a school
has more voucher applicants than it has places for them, it must choose by
lottery (subject to the ubiquitous rule that siblings have preference).
All this is admirable. But US private schools can abide by these regulations
because they are very different from Britain’s. Many private Catholic
schools, for example, have a social justice mission and positively welcome
the opportunity to teach low income and low-achieving children. They can
also afford to operate at two-thirds the cost of the state schools because
spending per pupil in US private schools averages half the spending in the
US state sector.
In Britain, by contrast, private schools spend something more than twice as
much per pupil. Do British voucher advocates seriously expect Eton,
Winchester and the City of London School to educate all-comers at two-thirds
the cost of state schools? Frankly, British private schools are not good
enough. They want the cheapest and easiest children to educate which is why
they preserve so fiercely “control over the admissions process”.
If a British version of the Milwaukee scheme were to involve more than
handful of quirky private schools, it would have to ditch that city’s
regulations and allow schools to select entrants and charge parents top-up
fees. A handful of poor children might benefit if they were lucky enough to
be among those chosen for special treatment (and if private schools really
are as good as they think they are). But the scheme would more likely end up
subsidising from public funds the wealthy parents who already pay private
Do Britain’s voucher advocates know all this? Either they do, in which case
they are dissembling, or they don’t, in which case they are ignorant. Either
way, we should stop listening to them.