Thinking Liberally

Published: Tuesday February 17, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday February 17, 2015 MYT 7:40:58 AM

School choice for all parents

A voucher system would keep parents involved in making important decisions about their child’s future, and require schools to prove they are good at educating children.

ONE fine morning, you go to a nearby restaurant to buy roti canai for your child. You find that the service is disappointing.

When you get home, your child complains that the food tastes bad and refuses to eat.

Would you buy roti canai from the same restaurant again?

Would you force your child to eat the same roti canai every day? Or would you go to another restaurant?

Now change the story just a little bit.

Every morning you send your child to school.

Your child comes back telling you that his teachers were not able to give him the attention that he needs because there were too many students in the classroom.

His exam results are consistently not very promising but no one is offering him any extra help. And he simply does not enjoy going to school.

Would you send your child to the same school again?

Would you force your child to continue attending the same school day-in and day-out?

Or would you look for another school?

The vast majority of us would respond differently to these two scenarios.

We would probably never go to the restaurant again and look for a better one instead. The roti canai may cost just one ringgit but you wouldn’t want your child to risk eating bad food.

But under normal circumstances, we would continue sending our child to the same school and we wouldn’t even think about changing school.

Why is it that we are meticulous about the risk of a bad roti canai but we don’t care enough about the risk of bad schooling that can have a life-long impact?

For the vast majority of parents, this is actually not about not caring. Of course we care. But we just don’t have a choice.

There are hundreds of restaurants that sell roti canai but our choice of school is limited by what is dictated to us by the government.

In Malaysia, the vast majority of us cannot choose the right school for our children because the government controls schools with a tight grip.

The government only allows you to choose if you have money. If you don’t have money, then tough luck. You just have to accept what is given to you.

Many countries have decided to end this discrimination against the poor.

They believe that every child matters and every child deserves to get the quality education that they want.

To give choice to everyone, including and especially the poor, these countries modify the way their schools are funded.

Conventionally, the government uses taxpayers’ money to fund government schools and the schools then take in the children.

If you can afford it, you can opt for private education by paying the fees yourself. This is what we have in Malaysia today.

If the government really wants to end education inequality, then a better funding model would be one in which the government funds students instead of schools.

This will ensure even the poorest have the ability to choose.

Globally, the system is known as the “school voucher” programme.

Several countries have had this system in place for a long time.

For example, the Netherlands is a constant high performer in the international benchmark of education quality, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The country started implementing a school voucher programme in 1917 and it continues until today.

Sweden is also another high performer in the PISA ranking.

They introduced the voucher system in 1992 and the country has seen a growth in not-for-profit and for-profit private schools.

Colombia introduced a targeted secondary school voucher scheme in the 1990s wherein 125,000 vouchers were provided to people residing in poor neighbourhoods.

The programme was so popular, it became oversubscribed within a short time.

The poor students receiving vouchers generally performed better academically, compared to their peers.

More recently, and closer to home, the Asian Development Bank announced in December 2014 that they are providing US$300mil (RM1.07bil) to support sweeping reforms, spearheaded by the Philippines government, including a voucher system to help cover tuition fees for an estimated 800,000 senior high school students each year.

Generally speaking, a school voucher is a system in which the government issues a guarantee that they will pay the school when the child registers to study there.

The government can issue a letter to parents, and parents then take the letter to the school where they want to register their child.

Parents do not receive any money from the government. The money goes directly to the school.

The concept may seem simple but the implication is vast.

Firstly, the model empowers and respects parental rights, keeping them involved in making important decisions about their child’s future.

This in itself is a major shift from what we have today.

Secondly, while education remains free for the students, vouchers bring market discipline into the picture.

Schools need to prove that they are good at educating the children.

If they fail to provide good quality education, parents can take the child to another school because they now have the purchasing power.

The competition between schools would result in a race to the top, with every school trying to be better than the others.

The combination of parental choice and inter-school competition would ultimately push up educational quality for the benefit of every child in the country.

If we are serious about improving our schools, we should demand that the government pilots the voucher system soon.

A good government will not tell us that they see more value in choosing a good roti canai over good education.

> Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Malaysia’s first think-tank dedicated to promoting market-based solutions to public policy challenges. Wan Saiful writes extensively on issues that cut across the political spectrum. His ideas are much sought after at home and abroad. You can email Wan Saiful at or follow him on twitter @wansaiful. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Tags / Keywords: Wan Saiful Wan Jan, columnist

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