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The realities of school vouchers

By Andrew Macintosh - posted Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Martin Carnoy, professor of education and economics at Stanford University and a leading expert on the Chilean experience, encapsulates it thus: “Chile’s voucher plan appears to have widened the gap between high- and low-income students in terms of test scores without increasing the overall level of academic achievement.”

It is unclear why voucher schemes have failed to produce better results. But irrespective of the cause, a balanced appraisal of the available data indicates that vouchers do not produce the academic benefits claimed by the proponents of choice. Worse still, any viable universal voucher scheme would cost taxpayers several billion dollars more than the current funding system and would risk harming disadvantaged students.

The threat to these students arises from the potential of vouchers to widen the gap in resources between wealthy and poor schools. There is also the risk they would trigger greater segregation on the basis of academic ability and socio-economic status.


Buckingham claims the US evidence shows that vouchers lead to “less segregation”, but she fails to mention that most of the schemes are designed to take disadvantaged students from poor public schools to private schools. It is obvious that under such schemes segregation on the basis of socio-economic status declines. But the same is not true of universal schemes.

As the evidence from Chile indicates, under a universal voucher scheme private and selective public schools may cream off the most talented students, and parents with higher incomes may use the additional funding provided by the voucher to shift their children from public to private schools, or from poor private schools to wealthier ones.

The end result could be a hierarchy of schools in which disadvantaged students are concentrated in under-resourced public and private schools. Because peers influence individual student results, the increase in segregation could drag down average results and increase the inequality in education outcomes.

Vouchers are not the solution to Australia’s schooling challenges. Greater hope lies in redistributing resources to disadvantaged schools where they would generate higher educational returns. There also needs to be greater flexibility in pay rates in order to attract the best teachers to the areas of greatest need.

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About the Author

Andrew Macintosh is Deputy Director of The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, and author of Drug Law Reform: Beyond Prohibition.

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