Guest Editorial

India scoops U.S. in school reform


Cartoon by Beeler

While still lagging in many achievement statistics, India's education system is improving at historic rates, helping supply the nation's ever-expanding job market. India's school reform efforts provide lessons for the United States, as our education system suffers from many of the same problems India's does.

The big problem in both nations is that the schools are public institutions led by a languid, bureaucratic central government under the control of powerful unions. In India, teacher absenteeism, high student-teacher ratios, poor test scores and high dropout rates plague the public education sector.

In 2007, the School Choice Campaign, a New Delhi-based education think tank, designed, funded and implemented a pilot school choice program in the city. The program randomly selected students to be offered a school tuition voucher, which was taken up by 63 percent of students selected. The money could be used at any qualifying private school.

India's teacher unions have fought the privately funded program tooth-and-nail. "They fight vouchers [because] they will enable students to leave the malfunctioning government schools and make the teachers redundant," says Jan S. Rao, director of the School Choice Campaign in Delhi.

"It is already happening in urban areas. In Delhi there are schools with more teachers than students, since the students have left."

Oxford economist Francis Teal examined the effect of teacher unions on academic performance in India for a 2008 study. "We thus have in this data clear evidence that unions raise costs and reduce student achievement," he bluntly states.

As a result of the devastating effect of the teacher unions, most high-income families in India send their children to private schools, which constitute a nearly $68 billion industry. Low- and middle-income students, by contrast, have no choice but to struggle through the failing public schools, just as in the United States.

The Delhi voucher plan addresses that problem and then some. Of those transferring out of the public schools, more than 50 percent report spending more on education out of pocket than before they had the voucher, in turn stimulating the economy.

Voucher beneficiaries in all tested grades experienced substantial increases in achievement test scores for English, math and Hindi. Literally every tested subject showed some increase in achievement scores among voucher families.

As a result, more than 90 percent of parents reported being happy with their children's new schools and learning progress. Nearly 100 percent of the voucher children reported enjoying their new school more than their previous one.

For leaders of India's education choice movement, the success of this trial is only the beginning. They will not be satisfied, says Dr. Parth J. Shah, president of India's Centre for Civil Society, until "the Delhi government immediately adopts funding all new government schools on a per-pupil basis through vouchers." That is already the national strategy in Sweden and Chile.

It's too late for the United States to lead in this area, but it's not too late to jump on board. Choice programs now being debated in New Jersey and Chicago should not be matters of controversy.

- Marc Oestreich is legislative specialist for educational issues at The Heartland Institute (


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