School Choice in India, Finland and Sweden

Member Group : David Kirkpatrick

For some years I have corresponded with Larry Willmore, formerly
with the United Nations in New York, currently with the International
Institute for Applied Systems in Austria. In July of 2008 he delivered a paper
at a conference in Slovenia, recently updated as Basic Education as a Human
Right Redux. He has supplied the following synopsis of that document.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948)
promises free elementary education and free choice of schools. This essay
reviews arguments against school choice examined in my original 2004 essay.

Next is updated evidence on the poor quality of schooling in India, which
permits school choice only for parents who are willing and able to pay for
private schooling. Finally, two countries with very different but very
successful educational systems are compared: Sweden, which offers virtually
unlimited choice of schooling, and Finland, which allows no choice at all.

India’s educational system, like that of many countries, has
evolved into a two-tier system of schooling. Most Indian children are trapped
in government schools of low quality. Those who can afford it pay full fees
to place their children in private schools, and their numbers are
increasing every year.

There are two ways out of this inequitable and inefficient
impasse, and they are at opposite ends of the school choice continuum. One
possibility is to move the system closer to that of Finland, by prohibiting all independent schools. The second possibility is to move to a system like that of Sweden, with government paying the same grant per pupil to private and
government schools.

India already has one part of the Finnish system in place: public
school teachers enjoy nearly complete freedom and autonomy. What they
lack is the training and professional ethics of Finnish teachers. The Finnish
system is ‘trust based’ without external exams or monitoring. This is a
system that is difficult to replicate. As Pasi Sahlberg explains in a recent
article, "The culture of trust can only flourish in an environment that is
built upon good governance and close-to-zero corruption. … Trusting
schools ad teachers [in Finland] is therefore a natural consequence of a
generally well-functioning civil society and high social capital. Honesty and
trust … are often seen as among the most basic values and the building
blocks of Finnish society. These demands would seem to rule out consideration
of the Finnish model, certainly for India, and perhaps for any country other
than present-day Finland.

The second possibility–the Swedish model–is a viable option and
has the added advantage that it respects human rights. A major problem in
India is the total lack of accountability of public school teachers.
Expanding school choice to everyone–beyond the circle of parents with sufficient income to pay private fees–the government in effect would be employing millions of parents as performance monitors. If a school fails to satisfy expectations, at the ed of the school year parents will vote with their feet’, and the money government spends on education will follow the child.

Not all details of the Swedish system are likely to be implemented in India. Schools in Sweden, for example, are prohibited from charging tuition or ‘top-up’ fees. Because of wide disparities in income and wealth, India will no doubt find it necessary to allow independent, fee-charging schools to continue operation. But no public money should go to such schools. Recognized private schools that choose to receive public money should not be allowed to charge top-up fees, nor require entrance examinations. In exchange, these publicly-financed private schools would receive the same grant per pupil as government schools receive in the same community. It is true that Indian private schools currently operate with much lower expenses than public schools, but there is no reason to discriminate against them in funding. Greater income will allow them to upgrade facilities and increase staff and salaries If the Swedish experience is any guide, the quality of government schools will increase as well.

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Larry Willmore, "Basic Education as a Human Right Redux",
presented to the Second Global International Studies Conference, University of
Ljubljana, Slovenia July 2008. The full paper can be downloaded at
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