Self-Governing Schools, Parental Choice, and the Need to Protect the Public Interest: Those Who Advocate Scaling Up Charter Schooling and Voucher Programs across the U.S. Should Heed Lessons Learned in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England

By Fiske, Edward B.; Ladd, Helen F. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Self-Governing Schools, Parental Choice, and the Need to Protect the Public Interest: Those Who Advocate Scaling Up Charter Schooling and Voucher Programs across the U.S. Should Heed Lessons Learned in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England


Fiske, Edward B., Ladd, Helen F., Phi Delta Kappan


In recent years, policy makers throughout the developed world have embraced a pair of closely linked ideas about how to improve their public education systems. First is the idea that parents should have the right to choose the schools that their children attend. Second is the notion that schools should be self-governing so they can distinguish themselves and thereby offer parents a range of choices.

We have had the opportunity to live in and write about three countries that have pursued these ideas vigorously--the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England. Given their differing histories, traditions, and national values, these countries enacted these policies in different ways and for quite different reasons, both practical and ideological. But all three had to confront the same underlying challenge: the need to protect broad public interests while respecting those of self-governing schools and parents.

The private benefits that derive from education are numerous, including access to well-paying jobs, improved health, and the prospect of more personally fulfilling lives, and parents have strong and legitimate reasons to pursue them for their children. However, public interests in education are also compelling. Compulsory, high-quality schooling produces a skilled workforce, an educated citizenry, and higher overall quality of life. Further, and as one of us (Ladd) and her colleagues describe in a forthcoming book, the public interest extends to how educational opportunities are distributed and thus to values of equality, adequacy, and attention to the least advantaged (Brighouse et al., in press).

Tensions between private and public interests are inevitable in any compulsory public education system. However, they become particularly intense in systems that favor self-governing schools and parental choice--both of which, by definition, privilege the interests of particular actors, be they schools or parents. We highlight here the goals and distributive principles by which these three countries have sought to safeguard public purposes in education, with attention to the successes and limitations of their efforts. Despite the differing contexts, these experiences provide lessons for U.S. policy makers about the need to take explicit actions to protect the public interest. We conclude with three lessons relevant to the contentious policy debates in the U.S. over charters and vouchers.

The Netherlands

The prize for the longest-running system of self-governing schools and parental choice goes to the Netherlands. For many years, Dutch society was divided among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and secularists, with members of each group living quite separate lives in what the Dutch referred to as "silos," which included separate school systems. Before 1917, the government used tax revenue to fund the free secular schools, while parents had to pay tuition for their children to attend Protestant or Catholic schools. That changed with a 1917 constitutional amendment requiring the government to take responsibility for funding all three types of schools. Central to the new system was the concept of "freedom of education," which gave parents a constitutional right to select an appropriate school for their child and even to collaborate with other parents to set up a new school with state support. All schools, whether under the control of a religious group or a municipality, enjoyed a good deal of operational freedom.

While catering to parents' private interests--the ability to choose a school for their child that was consistent with their values--Dutch policy makers were also careful to protect the public interest in two ways. First, to ensure that the quality of education would not depend on the type of school a child attended, the national government provided equal per-pupil resources for all primary schools. (Significantly, each of the three types of schools served families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. …

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