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O.E.C.D. Reviews School Choice in 6 Countries

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Americans' commitment to social justice has made the United States both a leader and a laggard among industrial countries in pursuing school-choice policies, an international report suggests.

Concerns about racial and socioeconomic segregation have slowed the development of school-choice programs here, according to the report, a comparative review of school choice in six industrialized countries released this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But social concerns in the United States also have sparked innovative approaches to choice that do more than the policies of any other country to "counter the unequal educational opportunities available to people of different class, race, or neighborhood,'' the report says.

"America sees the dangers [of school choice] more clearly and, at least in the public sector, has gone some way to try to address those dangers,'' the study's author, Donald Hirsch, said in an interview.

As a result, Mr. Hirsch said, "you see some more interesting educational models.''

Four of the report's 16 case studies highlight choice policies in the United States: Minnesota's system of interdistrict transfers, postsecondary-enrollment options, and charter schools; the limited private-school-voucher program in Milwaukee; the Montclair, N.J., system, in which every school is a magnet school; and the Boston student-assignment system, which aims to allow parents their choice of public schools while it promotes integration.

School choice has evolved in different forms in this country in part because of its proponents, Mr. Hirsch argued. The leaders of the U.S. movement in some cases have been civil-rights activists and other proponents of racial and socioeconomic diversity in education, he said. But in other countries, school-choice leaders most often are free-market advocates who view unfettered choice as the ideal.

"It would go against their principles to direct choice as is done in the United States,'' Mr. Hirsch said. "The whole idea is to make it a free, competitive exercise.''

No 'Pure' Choice

No country has adopted school-choice theories in "their pure form,'' the report notes.

Of the six countries studied, the Netherlands provides the most choice for parents, according to the report. In the early 1900's, the Dutch government guaranteed its citizens the choice of attending a school offering teaching in their own religion or belief system. As a result, the state finances private and public schools equally, permitting religious and public schools to compete on an even footing in many communities.

Today, two-thirds of Dutch primary and secondary students are enrolled in private schools, which are largely affiliated with Protestant or Catholic churches.

Britain, New Zealand, and Sweden permit parents varying degrees of choice among public schools.

The federal and state governments in Australia, meanwhile, subsidize private schools at rates that vary between 32 percent and 74 percent, depending on schools' financial resources.

While acknowledging that "there is no direct evidence'' that the competition introduced in choice systems improves school performance, the report says that schools in such systems typically develop strong leadership and a sense of mission, characteristics associated with effective schools.

Social Segregation

The report does find, however, "strong evidence'' that choice can increase social segregation. In Australia, for example, the expansion of public support for private schools since 1973 has increased the number of schools that mostly cater to children from relatively privileged backgrounds.

The study on school choice is the first in an O.E.C.D. series under the heading "What Works in Innovation.'' The Paris-based organization comprises 24 industrial countries that seek to cooperate in promoting economic growth. The group's Center for Educational Research and Innovation conducts research and helps advance school reforms in member nations.

Copies of the new report, "School: A Matter of Choice,'' are available for $22 each from the O.E.C.D., Publications and Information Center, 2001 L St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 785-6323.

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