Looking for equity in education? Follow the (public) money

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education

Talk of school vouchers inevitably triggers heated debate: do they give all students equal access to quality education? Or do they transfer resources away from precisely those schools that need them the most and inadvertently create a two-tier system of education?

This month’s PISA in Focus highlights results from PISA 2009 show that while privately managed schools do tend to attract advantaged students, the scale of the difference between the socio-economic profiles of publicly and privately managed schools is associated with the level of public funding allocated to privately managed schools – and with how that funding is provided.

In Finland, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic, Sweden and the partner economy Hong Kong-China, principals in privately managed schools reported that over 90% of school funding comes from the government, while in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg and Slovenia, between 80% and 90% does. In contrast, less than 10% of funding for privately managed schools in Greece, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, the partner countries Albania, Brazil, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Panama, Peru, Tunisia, Uruguay and the partner economies Dubai (UAE), Chinese Taipei and Shanghai-China comes from the government. PISA data reveal that in those countries where privately managed schools receive higher proportions of public funding, there is less of a difference between the socio-economic profiles of publicly and privately managed schools.

To refine these results further, PISA considered two systems through which public funding to privately managed schools is offered directly to parents: universal voucher systems, in which vouchers are available to all students, and targeted voucher systems, in which vouchers are provided only to disadvantaged students. Vouchers that are available for all students can help to expand the choice of schools available to parents and promote competition among schools; vouchers that target only disadvantaged students can help improve equity in access to schools. An analysis of PISA data shows that the difference between the socio-economic profiles of publicly managed schools and privately managed schools is twice as large in education systems that use universal vouchers as in systems that use targeted vouchers.

But PISA results also show that providing more public funding to privately managed schools will not necessarily eliminate that difference: other factors that are unrelated to funding, such as a school’s admittance criteria, academic performance, and learning environment, are also partly related to differences between schools’ socio-economic profiles.

What is crucial to take away from this analysis is that countries that manage to have small differences between the socio-economic profiles of publicly and privately managed schools also tend to achieve better overall performance. That means that policy makers – and ultimately parents and students – do not have to choose between equity and strong performance in their school systems: the two are not mutually exclusive.

For more information on PISA: www.oecd.org/pisa/
PISA in Focus No. 19: Is there really such a thing as a second chance in education? 
Photo credit:  apple target / Shutterstock


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