Policy & Research

How the Use of School Vouchers Has Destroyed Chile's Public Education System

To understand the impact of making school vouchers and school privatization the law of the land, we can look to the example set by Chile. A new report co-authored by education researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, examined that country's universal-voucher experience. The bottom line: Chile's voucher policy not only failed to meet its objectives, but it "also elicited several harmful outcomes for middle-class families, disadvantaged students and the teaching profession."

"What Might Happen If School Vouchers and Privatization of Schools Were to Become Universal in the U.S.: Learning from a National Test Case — Chile," was published by the National Education Policy Center, which works out of the University of Colorado in Boulder. The project used data and "robust evidence" pulled from a review of 56 empirical studies, most of which were published in peer-reviewed venues and others published as research reports or working papers. Thirty-five studies were quantitative, fourteen were qualitative, and seven were mixed methods.

The issue of universal vouchers has come to the forefront as part of the Trump administration's education platform. The idea has also caught on with lawmakers in several states. As the report explained, these "choice" programs, as they're called, are positioned as ways to expand the alternatives to traditional public schools, especially for underserved students. Among supporters, giving families vouchers and allowing them to choose where their child will receive an education would motivate public schools to become more competitive. Opponents charge that vouchers would take money away from public schools, exacerbating inequalities, benefiting few students and leaving many behind.

In Chile, vouchers and privatization were made a central feature of school choice in 1981, during a dictatorship that lasted for 17 years. Prior to this 80 percent of Chilean students attended public schools. Under the new system, vouchers became the sole source of school funding and ownership of public schools was transferred to municipalities.

Each student receives a voucher, which, in theory, can be used at whatever school the family chooses. New schools are "relatively easy" to open, and they've multiplied under churches, community organizations and for-profits (although, the report noted, since 2016 for-profit schools no longer qualify for the vouchers). Schools close when their enrollment dwindles to a point where they're no longer financially sustainable. In 1988, the country set up a performance evaluation system to help parents get a sense of the relative quality of schools. Standardized tests were added in 1995, and those results were publicly disclosed. (Another form of private school that the report doesn't cover are the ones that don't accept government vouchers — educating about eight percent of students, mainly, the "children of the economic elite.")

The report acknowledged that Chile is not the United States. For example, it's a much smaller country — about the size of the state of New York — and much poorer. Also, vouchers are still "relatively peripheral" in this country. Currently, 90 percent of students attend standard public schools.

However, if the United States "were to take the route of universal privatization and vouchers," here's what we might expect:

  • Families wouldn't choose schools; they could only choose where to submit their applications. Parents might aim "for high-status schools" for their children and settle for "the ones that grant acceptance." Schools would use "selection mechanisms" to go after the students based on their individual and family advantages or based on those who could afford a "co-pay" beyond the voucher amount.
  • Public schools would become the default for those who lack any other economic means. In Chile, even in the poorest neighborhoods, "schools are finely stratified and socially segregated." Those families who could bring anything else "to the table" would gain the edge. As a result, schools have become "hyper-segregated." Only the poorest families or those with children who have special-needs send their kids to public schools; in Santiago, the largest city in the country, 20 percent of students attend these. And while the schools with higher numbers of special-needs and disadvantaged students get extra voucher payments, "the severe concentration of the neediest students in public schools strains the finances and organizational capacities of municipalities to manage this burden."
  • Publicly funded teacher professional development would go out the window. In Chile, public schools are constrained by budget and private schools take advantage of teacher "deregulation," which calls for teachers to cover the expense of their own continuing education. Also, private schools have little reason to support teacher professional learning since families wouldn't care. What do they care about? Among middle-class families, researchers found, it was the "social network of peers" they'd be able to become part of; among lower-class families, it was the nearness of the school, its safety and climate.

Ultimately, school privatization in Chile has led to a system that thrives on "competition and exclusion." As the report noted, in this kind of environment, "Private interests are powerful, and families are caught up in striving for social distinction and advantage," the consequences of which are "psychologically and socially damaging." And to get out of this "unwinnable race" by changing it would be both an "arduous political struggle" and a "cultural challenge."

"Universal vouchers and privatization solve neither the problem of quality nor the problem of equity," the report concluded. "What they have done is ensnare all social classes in the relentless pursuit of the most socially selective schooling option that they can afford and that private school providers allow them access to."

The report is openly available on the NEPC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.