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Vouchers in Holland Have Led to Control of Private Schools

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Washington--At a time when interest in government support of private schools is high, the experiences of countries with large amounts of this type of support--such as the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada--are of particular interest to education researchers.

Recently, a group of researchers and educators assembled here at the National Institute of Education (nie) to hear Piet J. Gathier, the director general for secondary education in the Netherlands, describe that country's system of public financing of private schools.

In the Netherlands, 70 percent of all the schools are private. Until 1917, the cost of founding and running a school had to be borne entirely by parents, Mr. Gathier said, but that year the Dutch Constitution of 1848 was amended "to place state and private schools financially on an equal footing," a situation unique to Holland.

In Holland, each family receives a voucher equivalent to the per-pupil cost of education in the public schools (which, for example, was about $1,300 in 1978).

Vouchers Supplemented

Private schools can supplement this voucher by charging extra fees, but these are small and the purposes to which they can be put are limited by the state. They can be used to increase library holdings or to finance field trips, for example, but not to supplement teachers' salaries, which are paid directly by the state on the basis of experience and other factors.

Thus, private schools cannot use the funds to attract better teachers through higher salaries. Because 80-to-90 percent of school expenditures go for teachers' salaries, this system puts most of the budget control for public and private schools in state hands.

Under the Dutch system, groups of parents (whose minimum number, set by law, may range from 50 to 125, depending on the size of the municipality) may apply to establish a private school. The government then pays almost all initial capital costs and early expenses.

Most of the private schools started were (and continue to be) church-affiliated. Today, for example, 95 percent of the private primary schools in Holland are church-affiliated.

But while most of the educators present expressed admiration for the Dutch system, they also questioned whether private schools so heavily financed and controlled as those in Holland are really "private" in the American sense. Many expressed doubt that this level of government control would be accepted by most private and independent schools in the United States.

David W. Breneman of the Brookings Institution, said, "This makes you wonder what the difference between public and private schools is in Holland." He added that it is difficult for him to imagine this level of support for private schools here.

Denis P. Doyle, an education-policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, referred to the system as one of "parallel public schools."

Mr. Gathier said the distinctions between public and private schools is clear, however.

Public education in Holland, Mr. Gathier said, is run by the central or local government, while private schools--although financed by the government--are under the control of the parents who began them.

'Strings Attached' to System

Public financing of private schools is accomplished by "a voucher system, with strings attached," according to Estelle James, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Ms. James, as part of an international study of public-private "division of responsibility" for education and other public services, recently spent one month in Holland studying the Dutch school system. She has drafted a report which attempts to analyze, based on Holland's experience, what problems might arise if a government policy such as tuition tax credits or vouchers, "which encourage people to use private rather than public schools," were used here.

She tried to determine whether some of the "common fears" about public support of private schools in the United States were borne out by the Dutch experience.

Among the questions she examined: Would public subsidies enable private schools to pay above-market salaries and compete more strongly for the best teachers? Does government control always accompany funding, and does this limit the benefits and diminish the special qualities that distinguish private schools? Would a shift to private schools increase the segmentation within society along racial, religious, and class lines? And, if more people go to private schools, would taxpayers therefore be less willing to support high budgets for public schools?

She concluded that while the Dutch sys-tem "avoids many of the possible pitfalls of privatization," a similar financing arrangement would work very differently in the United States.

Dutch policies have definitely increased the use of private schools, she found. In 1880, 75 percent of all primary students were attending public schools. Today, approximately 27 percent of the primary students are in public schools and 73 percent are in private ones. In 1880, 95 percent of the country's secondary students were in public schools; by the early 1970's, the public enrollment had dwindled to 28 percent.

One way the government has prevented the"whimsical" formation of private schools, Ms. James said, is by requiring the parent groups to post a bond equal to 10 percent of the school building's cost, returnable if the building is fully occupied after 20 years.

"The Dutch experience suggests that, if greater public support for private schools were provided in other countries, the greatest beneficiaries would be the religious groups that are best able to set up new schools," she said.

The possibility that financial support for public schools would decline has been avoided in Holland by tying private-school budgets to those for public schools, Ms. James said, and by limiting the private schools' power to charge tuition, thus greatly reducing their ability to make their own spending decisions.

A new law that is to take effect in 1983, designed to ensure equal access to all schools, will make it illegal to exclude a child from a private school if he cannot pay the fee.

Ms. James said that the widespread concern in the U.S. that government control accompanies government support is "consistent with" the situation in the Netherlands. There, she said, the government can regulate teacher numbers, salaries, and qualifications.

Uniform Curriculum

All schools, public and private, must follow a uniform curriculum, which specifies the number of hours to be spent on each required subject each year.

But they can choose their own textbooks and teachers and can use "religion and lifestyle" as criteria for hiring, Ms. James said.

Do such policies promote an "elitist" system? According to the researcher, the sys-tem has resulted in religious segmentation in Holland, but not class segmentation. This is true, she cautioned, only because of features of the Dutch education system's structure that do not exist here.

Holland, she noted, "has a highly selective secondary-school system, which itself segregates along class lines at an early age, and a university system equally accessible to all those who have passed through the pre-university screening."

It would be dangerous, Ms. James said, to "extrapolate from the Dutch to the American scene without taking the complex confluence of regulatory and broader societal legacies into account."

If America moved toward public funding of private schools, she added, "we would probably find that some private schools would be willing to accept the rules together with the funds, while others would prefer to forego both and retain their autonomy. We would probably also find that, even if these rules were imposed, class segmentation would result if private schools were permitted to select their own students."

According to Mr. Doyle, the most valuable feature of the Dutch educational system for the U.S. to imitate would be its concern with "output measures instead of input measures."

"The Dutch by virtue of exit exams don't have to make a fuss about what goes in the schools," he said. "We're more concerned with that.''

Copies of Ms. James's paper are available at a cost of $2 from the Program on Non-Profit Organizations, the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. 06520.

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