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Get parental choice right, says new Ed Forum

Get parental choice right, says new Education Forum report

Policies that promote choice and competition in schooling must be well-designed and well-implemented if they are to help transform the school system, says a new report from the Education Forum.

"Parental Choice as an Education Reform Catalyst: Global Lessons", by John Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, reviews the experience with parental choice in Sweden, Chile, New Zealand and four US jurisdictions.

It concludes that the benefits from the introduction of choice and competition - improved educational performance, greater innovation, enhanced equity and increased efficiency - while positive, have been limited by weaknesses in policy design and implementation.

According to Professor Merrifield, any move away from state monopoly arrangements and toward increased parental choice and competition in schooling is welcome. But such policies will only help transform the school system if:

they are universal (or nearly so), rather than being limited to a small group of recipients

increased parental choice is accompanied by policies that allow schools to respond to changing demands (including allowing new schools to open, popular schools to expand and schools to adopt different governance arrangements)

ensuring that school funding follows the student

allowing schools to specialise.

A key point noted by Professor Merrifield is that potential investors require certainty about the scope of the market and the nature of school sector regulation if they are to see the sector as an attractive place to invest.

An important conclusion from the report is that the New Zealand reforms of the late 1980s/early 1990s - limited bulk funding, the Targeted Individual Entitlement scheme and the removal of zoning - were not nearly as 'radical' as is often portrayed by opponents. As Professor Merrifield notes in the report: "Despite their reputation as 'far-reaching', the 1989 reforms did not establish any of the key elements of a reform catalyst".

Education Forum policy advisor Norman LaRocque said one of the clear implications of the Merrifield report was that New Zealand's school reform effort must strive for broader changes that would see all funding following the student, irrespective of the school they chose to go to, and schools given freedom to respond to the needs of the community.

Mr LaRocque said he was pleased that the report was being released now given the importance of education in current policy debates and the impending election.

"The report provides clear lessons for policy design and a useful benchmark against which to assess the policies of the various political parties. Although not all political parties have announced their school policies, it is pleasing to see that the National Party has already set out a number of reforms that are consistent with the direction outlined in this report.

"The central message of the report - that design and implementation need to be done right if a policy is to be successful - may appear simple, but we need only look at recent education policy implementation disasters to see how important it really is," Mr LaRocque said.

The report is online at:

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