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Betsy DeVos Touts School Choice Opportunities in the U.K., Netherlands

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised efforts in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to help students tailor their educations to their individual needs.

"Both of these countries have continued to forge ahead with reforms and changes that are actually meeting students' needs today," DeVos told reporters in a Friday conference call that capped off a ten-day trip to study school choice and career education in three European countries. Her tour also included stops in Switzerland.

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Both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have more centralized education systems than ours. And both countries allow public funding to go to faith-based schools. That's something states could replicate here, even though the federal government can't, DeVos said.

"School choice is open to every type of school" in the U.K. and the Netherlands, DeVos said. "The corollary here in the U.S. is that states are free to, and many have begun a process in this direction, to allow families to choose from a wide-range of schools including private faith-based schools. That I think can and should continue to be a progression for states that think it's the right thing for them."

"I think the experience of both these countries has demonstrated that all of these schools can freely co-exist with one another," she added.

In England, religious schools are also subject to the same regulations as their secular counterparts, said Paul Peterson, the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

What's more, in the last 15 years, England has adopted a policy similar to "open enrollment" in the U.S. where students can attend a school outside of their neighborhood, Peterson said. DeVos also gave a shout-out to the country's "academies" that began in the past decade and are similar to charter schoos.

School choice was also a focus of DeVos' second stop on the ten-day tour, the Netherlands. That country has four sectors of schools: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and secular. Students can choose to attend any school, they don't have to stick with their religious tradition, Peterson explained.

"Basically what you have in both the Netherlands and in Britain are regulated choice systems in which the students have full support and the schools are fully funded and that's different from what we have in the United States," Peterson said. "We try to do choice on the cheap in the United States."

But he added that it wouldn't be easy to adopt the Dutch or British systems in the U.S. England, for instance, doesn't have a written constitution like ours, with an amendment that calls for the separation of church and state. Instead, the U.K.'s constitution is considered informal, Peterson said.

"The choice [system here] here is being treated around the first amendment," Peterson said. "How much of it we can apply in our constitutional system is another matter. It can't be one for one, the same system. It's going to have to be modified."

In England, DeVos visited several schools, including the Grey Coat Hospital, a school for girls run by the Church of England, that describes its mission as "to enable students to take charge of their learning, make decisions based on Christian values, live in the world as independent women and men and meet the challenges of the twenty-first century," according to its website

She also visited Pimlico Primary, a charity-sponsored school, started by John Nash, the former Under Secretary of State for Schools and a member of the conservative party. And she met with Lord Theodore Agnew, parliamentary undersecretary of state for the school system, as well as meet with Minister of State for School Standards Nick Gibb.

While in the Netherlands, DeVos swung by a career and vocational education school and met with U.S. teachers who are in the Netherlands as part of the Fulbright program. She participated in a roundtable with students at IMC Weekend, a school that helps low-income students explore potential careers. And she met with her Dutch counterpart, Ingrid van Engleshoven, the minister of education, culture, and science.

Broadening choice for students in the U.K., the Netherlands, and other countries hasn't hurt student achievement, said Peterson. But he added that the "evidence that is has been helpful is just beginning to be accumulated."

Peterson pointed to a 2009 study by his Harvard colleague Marty West and Luger Woessmann, a professor at the University of Munich, showing that greater choice can have a positive impact on students attending public school. 

DeVos' European trip also included stops in Switzerland, where she explored career-and-technical education. Her big takeaway: The U.S. should copy aspects of the Swiss system, which allows students to prepare on the job for careers in health care, finance, and law, as opposed to just more technical careers, such as welders and carpenters. About two-thirds of students in Switzerland participate in an apprenticeship at some point in their education, according to DeVos.  

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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