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Private School Vouchers, Chilean Style

CORRECTED

As lawmakers across the country move to launch new voucher programs or strengthen existing ones, a new paper examines the record of one of the world's most expansive private school choice models: Chile's three-decades-old voucher system.

The paper, which appears in Policy Analysis, a journal of the libertarian Cato Institute, looks at how students fared at both private and public schools funded through the nation's distinctive educational system.

Chile's voucher program came into being in the early 1980s. The authors compare the performance of 4th graders in Chilean public schools in math and Spanish with students in independent private schools, as well as with those in private school "franchises" or networks, usually operated by the same owner, known as a sostenedor.

The vast majority of Chile's private-voucher schools, more than 70 percent, are independent schools, while franchises make up the rest, the paper notes.

The authors—Gregory Elacqua, Dante Contreras, Felipe Salazar, and Humberto Santos—found that, when controlling for various characteristics, students at private school franchises outperform students at comparable independent private schools, which in turn produce similiar test scores to public schools. In addition, larger private school franchises appear to outperform smaller ones, the authors found. (They based their study on scores on Chile's national, standardized test.)

Context is important in international comparisions, and some context is definely in order when talking about Chile in the 1970s and 1980s. The nation's voucher system didn't come to life amid a richly democratic public debate, but emerged instead from the policies imposed by the military dictatorship that toppled elected President Salvador Allende and controlled the country from 1973 to 1990 under the rule of strongman Augusto Pinochet.

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As the authors explain, Pinochet's government decentralized public schools, transferring power over them to municipal governments, and implementing a flat, per-pupil voucher system. Municipalities and private schools that did not charge tuition began receiving per-pupil vouchers for their students, while elite private schools continued to operate without public funding.

Private school enrollment in Chile has risen over time. In 1979, 12 percent of Chile's students attended private schools that received some public money, and 7 percent went to unsubsized ones, according to Elacqua and his co-authors. By 1990, 32 percent of the country's students were attending private voucher schools, and by 2009 the number was 48 percent. When the additional, smaller portion of students attending non-voucher private schools is included, the total percentage of students in private schools had reached 56 percent by 2009.

Democratic governments over the past 20 years have kept the basic structure of Chile's voucher system in place, but have sought to direct more aid to needy students. Even so, many of Chile's students regard the school and university funding systems as inequitable, as they've demonstrated in recent street protests.

But to go back to the results of the study: Why do the larger, franchise private school networks appear to have so much success in Chile? The authors suggest that networks of private schools might have been able to save money on supplies and the costs of implementing curriculum, use educators and administrators more wisely, and more easily draw credit and investment than smaller private schools.

It's also possible that "[b]eing embedded within a larger organization facilitates transactions between parents, teachers, adminstrators, and students, and influences the development of stronger school communities," the authors explain.

At the same time, they caution that some of the franchise-private schools' success could be attributed to relatively successful schools deciding to join with those networks, or establish their own franchises and draw others in.

Are there lessons that U.S. private schools can learn from their Chilean counterparts, in terms of consolidation or creating networks of providers? Or do those sorts of Inter-American lessons unravel because of the political, economic, and historical differences between the countries? Have a look at the paper, and give me your own, cross-national comparision.

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post should have said that 48 percent of students in Chile are attending private voucher schools, specifically, up from 32 percent in 1990. When other, non-voucher private schools are included in the mix, an even stronger percentage of Chilean students, 56 percent, are attending some kind of private school, as of 2009.]

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