Lessons from Chile: School Choice

With access to quality education not being provided to all, there is that lingering suggestion of recruiting the private sector to fill the gap and solve the problem. School choice is heralded as a way to solve ailing public schools. Armed with the impression that private schools do a better job in educating children, the idea of providing the poor access to these schools seems inviting. Whether such an approach can in fact succeed on a large scale requires careful examination and data. There is one country that can provide such information. Chile has extensively provided vouchers for the past three decades, financing both public and private schools. Thus, during this ample period, there is enough data that can help answer the question on whether school choice does make quality education more accessible to disadvantaged children. The answer from Chile is "No".

The following is a paper published a year ago in the International Journal of Educational Development:

Downloaded from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059311001283
The first paragraph of the author's conclusion section is as follows:
Consistent with previous research, I find that public schools are more likely to serve disadvantaged (low socioeconomic status and indigenous) student populations than private voucher schools. I also find that disadvantaged students are less segregated in the public sector than in the private voucher sector. These results are not surprising given that public schools are mandated by law to accept all students who apply, regardless of ability to pay, while private schools are permitted to use parental interviews to select and expel students as they see fit. I also find evidence that these aggregate patterns may be masking some differences across private voucher school sectors. For-profit schools, surprisingly, are more likely to serve disadvantaged students than non-profit voucher schools. However, disadvantaged students in for-profit schools are more isolated from their more advantaged peers than in non-profit and public schools. This suggests that this sub-sector of schools is finding market niches in both low and middle-income communities.
The author likewise pointed out an interesting finding regarding Catholic schools in Chile. It appears that Catholic schools enroll a very small fraction from disadvantaged homes, smaller than other private schools. Two reasons were offered by the author. One is that Catholic schools are now relying more on lay people for their teachers and staff. This translates to higher costs of operation. This, however, is true for other schools. A second reason is that the clients of these Catholic schools are indirectly demanding that the schools remain selective and enroll only children from privileged families. Responding to market incentives can alter the objectives of a voucher program. This perhaps is the underlying issue explaining why school choice does not deliver what it promises.

And for Catholic schools, it is refreshing to hear Pope Francis say the following:
"Men and women of the Church who are careerists, social climbers, who use the people, the Church, brothers and sisters - those they should serve - as a springboard for their own ambitions and personal interests do great damage to the Church."