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How does school choice work in other countries?

Contrary to popular belief, the United States has far less school choice than many other countries. For example, some European nations actually give students a constitutional right to attend any private school at public expense. Many developing countries also find ways, even with more limited resources, to give parents and students choice.

International evidence from these countries supports the positive qualities asserted by school choice advocates in the United States and invalidates the claims of harm made by some American commentators.


MYTH: The United States is unusual in having school choice.

Some people believe that with the availability of vouchers in some states, charter schools, and public school choice, the United States has more school choice than other countries.

FACT: Many nations allow families to use government funding to access private schools.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed its 34 member countries and partner countries in 2008 and 2009 for its annual Education at a Glance reports. As “the authoritative source for accurate and relevant information on the state of education around the world,”1 the OECD’s reports show that, of the 53 participants, 25 countries’ governments (nine of which have top 20 PISA scores overall) provide vouchers and/or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools (see accompanied table).

Scholar Charles Glenn noted that “governments in most Western democracies provide partial or full funding for nongovernment schools chosen by parents; the United States (apart from a few scattered and small-scale programs) is the great exception, along with Greece.”2 Or as Diane Ravitch pointed out in a 2001 article, “The proportion of students in government-funded private schools is sizable in countries such as Australia (25 percent), Belgium (58 percent), Denmark (11 percent), France (16.8 percent), South Korea (21 percent), the Netherlands (76 percent), Spain (24 percent), and the United Kingdom (30 percent).”

In Finland, the government provides funding for basic education at all levels, and instruction is free of charge.3 In Sweden, schooling is “free,” and parents are able to choose their children’s schools; funding even follows the student when they change schools.4 In Portugal, the Ministry of Education finances the public sector in its entirety, and the state subsidizes each student in private schools.5 In Germany, the Netherlands, England, Northern Ireland, and Sweden, “public funding is provided so that families can choose to send their children to schools with a religious character.”6

In several European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland, school choice is a constitutional right. Article 24 of the Belgian constitution, for example, provides “all pupils of school age have the right to moral or religious education at the Community’s expense.” Belgium enacted universal school choice in 1958 in what it termed the “School Pact”; school choice was seen as a way of avoiding strife between Catholic and Protestant schools.

Other European nations’ experiences with robust school choice refute the canards that are raised against vouchers in the United States. Some have argued, for example, that vouchers lead to balkanization and to the funding of extremist schools. This has not been the case in Europe. As Charles Glenn points out, “The Dutch example is particularly telling since there is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of the religious or philosophical character of schools…and two-thirds of pupils in the country attend nonpublic schools. Surely in the Netherlands, if anywhere, we might expect to find weird or divisive education. But in fact the rich variety of publicly funded schools…has neither divided Dutch society nor resulted in groups of children being poorly educated.”7

The evidence is clear. Much of Europe supports school choice.

However, even some non-European democracies have embraced school choice. For instance, Chile has both municipal and private subsidized schools financed through vouchers.8  In South Korea, government funding of private schools has been present since the end of the Korean War.9 The first nine years of education are compulsory schooling “free” of charge, and the finance of private schools is almost entirely dependent upon the government.10 Recently, this has also been extended in part to private high schools.11

Increasingly, developing countries are also experimenting with school choice. India, a country of over a billion people, supports private schools at taxpayer expense. As of 2012, private schools made up 21.2 percent of India’s schools, and more than one in four of these schools (5.16 percent of total schools) were publicly supported.12 India’s neighbor, Pakistan, also supports private schools. The Punjab Education Foundation, which exists as an independent organization separate from the Ministry of Education, is charged with improving education through the development of public-private partnerships. Its most successful project has been the Education Vouchers Scheme which, as of 2008, supported over 10,000 students at 52 different schools.13

Other developing countries have tried various voucher or voucher-like programs, especially to draw in poor students who might not otherwise attend school at all. In Côte d’Ivoire subsidies are given to private schools per student enrollee. Students may attend the school of their choice if they can make it over the entrance restrictions.14 Cameroon provides subsidies to faith-based private schools for accepting poor students. Bangladesh has a program which covers 80 percent of teacher salaries in private schools.15 Vouchers or various other financial support structures from the government appear to be widely available in and embraced by developing countries as a means of increasing enrollment at the bottom end of their socioeconomic ladders.

Countries with Vouchers or Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling

CountriesVouchersTuition Tax Credits*2012 PISA Ranking
53 (68 surveyed)1911
SingaporePublic Only*No2
Hong Kong-ChinaNo*No3
Chinese TaipeiYes*No6
Viet Nam§15
New ZealandYesNo20
Czech RepublicNoNo23
United StatesYesYes29
ItalyPublic OnlyYes30
Russian FederationNo40
Slovak RepublicYesNo41
Dubai (UAE)n/a*n/a46
BulgariaPublic Only*No48
Costa Rica-*51
MontenegroPublic Only*No54
ArgentinaPublic Only*No59
IndonesiaPublic Only63
Saudi Arabian/a
South African/a
Trinidad and Tobago-*n/a
Note: Includes both independent private schools and government-dependent private schools. Federal states or countries with highly decentralized school systems may experience regulatory differences between states, provinces, or regions. 2012 PISA ranking is based on total scores of the overall reading, mathematics, and science scales. England and Scotland are grouped as the United Kingdom for the PISA rankings. Tuition tax credit: A regulation that allows parents to deduct educational expenses, including private school tuition, from their taxes. This results in governments paying the costs for private schools through foregone revenues.
*Year of reference is 2008.
† South Korea has “free” schooling for the first nine years and the finance of private schools is almost entirely dependent upon the government
‡ Finland provides “free” basic education at all levels
§ Country was included in the PISA rankings, but was not included in Education at a Glance
# Sweden has “free” schooling
** Colombia classifies its vouchers as a lottery
Sources: OECD, Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011), table D5.14; OECD, Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011), tables D5.3 and D5.12; OECD, PISA 2012 Results in Focus (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), p. 5, http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-snapshot-Volume-I-ENG.pdf.


MYTH: School choice does not work in other countries.

A few studies claim that school choice has not led to academic benefits in other countries. They claim the United States should therefore learn from other countries’ experiences and refuse to adopt school choice.

FACT: Most studies support school choice’s effectiveness in other countries.

Most studies show school choice in other countries has led to greater academic gains for students. Although many of those studies may not be directly applicable to the American context, they give further evidence that school choice can and does work.

EVIDENCE: Studies show students making academic gains through choice.

First, studies of worldwide scope have found school choice produces greater educational achievement on average. Dronkers and Robert found in a 2008 analysis of PISA scores from 22 countries that “pupils at private government dependent schools have a higher net educational achievement than do comparable pupils at public schools with the same social composition. The explanation of these remaining net differences in scholastic achievement seems to be their better school climate.”16 Similarly, West and Woessman found in a major international analysis that “private school competition attributable to past Catholic policies generates higher student achievement in mathematics, reading, and science today. [They] also show that competition between the public and private sector positively affects the achievement of students attending public schools. Spending on education is also reduced, suggesting that school systems are more productive if they are more competitive.”17

Second, many studies of particular countries have found benefits from school choice. For instance, Sweden has guaranteed school choice for all students since the early 1990s. Ahlin found “an increase in the share of private school students by 10 percentage points is associated with an improvement of mathematics performance corresponding to about five percentiles in the test score distribution.”18 Other recent work on Sweden came to more equivocal conclusions, but acknowledged “there is no evidence suggesting that students are hurt by competition from private schools.”19 Recent news of Sweden’s fall in international educational rankings has led some to conclude that school choice is responsible. However, many reasonably assert that this is too reductionist considering the breadth of educational reforms Sweden has undergone in the past two decades and its still relatively small percentage of private schools.20

Chile has had one of the most robust school choice programs in the world for the past few decades, and public school enrollment is currently only about 52 percent. A recent study using a sophisticated statistical technique called propensity score matching found “students that move from public schools to fee-charging private voucher schools due to a scholarship perform better in language and science tests. The differences are statistically significant, ranging from 17 percent to 22 percent of one standard deviation.”21 Another study found voucher effects “that are large in magnitude and statistically significant (more than one-third of a standard deviation in test scores).”22 Importantly, these studies looked at individual student test scores, whereas two other studies that are often cited for their criticisms of the Chilean voucher system were based only on school-level or community-level averages.23

Another study in Chile found, “On net, the voucher reforms increased primary school graduation rates by 0.6 percentage points, high school graduation rates by 3.6 percent, college-going rates by 3.1 percent and the percent completing at least four years of college by 1.8 percent for individuals exposed to the reform during their entire schooling career.”24 Yet another study of Chile found “for the ratio of voucher-to-public schools in an area, one additional voucher school per public school increases tests scores by about 0.14 standard deviations” and that this improvement affected students attending public and voucher schools.25

Colombia also has had one of the largest voucher programs in the world; it awards vouchers by random assignment. Two quality studies have shown that its voucher program is improving student achievement and attainment. Economists from MIT and Harvard, among other co-authors, found in one paper that voucher winners “were about 10 percentage points more likely than (lottery) losers to have completed eighth grade, primarily because they repeated fewer grades,” and that “on average, lottery winners scored about 0.2 standard deviations higher than losers.”26 In a follow-up paper, they found vouchers increased high school graduation rates by five to seven percentage points, compared to a baseline graduation rate of 25 percent to 30 percent.27

In Israel, Victor Lavy found that a public school choice program “significantly reduces the drop-out rate and increases the cognitive achievements of high-school students. It also improves behavioral outcomes such as teacher-student relationships and students’ social acclimation and satisfaction at school, and reduces the level of violence and classroom disruption.”28

In England, a team of scholars found religiously controlled state-funded schools had a “sizeable and positive impact of school competition on pupil achievement,” about 20 percent of a standard deviation. They noted “these findings support the existence of a beneficial effect of competition on pupil achievement in a setting in which schools combine more responsive governance (mainly via institutional arrangements) with greater autonomy in admission procedures.”29 Notably, nonreligious choice schools did not have the same competitive benefit.

In India, private schools as a share of the total have more than doubled to over 20 percent with some Indian states now providing education to their students primarily through private schools.30 Vouchers are a newer additional to this rapid shift in educational options, but are also on the rise. In Andhra Pradesh, an Indian state of over 80 million people, the Azim Premji Foundation conducted a school voucher program over an area covering 180 villages. After two and four years of the program, lottery winners showed an overall increase in scores. The voucher students were more successful in part because of more efficient teaching, which maintained math and Telugu language scores on par with public schools while allocating more time for English, Science, Social Studies, and Hindu. Private schools did this with less than one-third of the cost per student compared to public schools mainly by hiring newer teachers at lower salaries.31 The fact that less experienced teachers were still able to improve scores shows the real benefits of choice.

Wolf, Egalite, and Dixon used experimental methods to examine the impact of a privately-funded low-cost school voucher program on the test score outcomes of low-income students in Delhi, India. They found two years after receiving vouchers worth $200 per year, test scores were significantly higher for the voucher students in both English and Math, with the impacts strongest for female students. This is especially meaningful for low-income students in India because English language skills and math skills are essential to future employability, and girls tend to be under-educated relative to boys due to cultural norms.32

A study on the effects of the Education Voucher Scheme in Pakistan found that the voucher students, all of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds, generally showed equal levels of academic success as the students who came from middle-income groups. Considering the large disparity between these two groups the “catch-up rate” is impressive. However, the voucher program had other benefits as well. Parents are now able to negotiate for better services or access to teachers; transferring between schools is often simple because the program is currently in multiple schools in any given geographical area. Often money from each voucher is left over and used by administrators to improve the school and teachers’ salaries. In addition, the program has brought back some 20–25 percent of drop-out students, a significant problem in rural, poor Pakistan.33

In short, evidence from many countries shows school choice is beneficial, just as is the case with randomized trials in the United States.


1. “Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013, http://www.oecd.org/education/eag.htm.

2. Charles L. Glenn, “What the United States Can Learn from Other Countries,” in What America Can Learn from School Choice in Other Countries, ed. David Salisbury and James Tooley (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2005), p. 80.

3. Department for Education and Science Policy, Improving School Leadership: Country Background Report for Finland (Finland: Ministry of Education, 2007).

4. Swedish National Agency for School Improvement, “Improving School Leadership: Country Background Report for Sweden” (Feb. 13, 2007).

5. Ministry of Education, Portugal, “Improving School Leadership: Country Background Report for Portugal” (Dec. 2007).

6. Glenn, “Educational Freedom and Protestant Schools in Europe,” in International Handbook of Protestant Education 6 (2012), p. 139.

7. Glenn, “What the United States Can Learn from Other Countries,” p. 84.

8. School Management and Educational Improvement Unity, “Improving School Leadership: Country Background Report for Chile,” Ministry of Education, General Education Division (2007).

9. Jung-Sook Kim and Yeo-Jung Hwang, “The Effects of School Choice on Parental School Participation and School Satisfaction in Korea,” Social Indicators Research 115, no. 1 (2014), 363-85.

10. Korean Educational Development Institute, Improving School Leadership: Country Background Report for Korea (Seoul: 2007).

11. See note 9 above.

12. National University of Educational Planning and Administration, Elementary Education in India Progress Towards UEE: DISE 2011-12 Flash Statistics (New Delhi: 2013).

13. Ali Salman, “Liberate to Learn: Education Vouchers in Pakistan,” Economic Affairs 30, no. 3 (Oct. 2010), pp. 35-41.

14. Chris Sakellariou and Harry Anthony Patrinos, “Incidence Analysis of Public Support to the Private Education Sector in Cote d’Ivoire,” World Bank Working Paper no. 3231, Washington, DC.

15. Stephen P. Heyneman and Jonathan M.B. Stern, “Low Cost Private Schools for the Poor: What Public Policy is Appropriate?,” International Journal of Educational Development 35 (Mar. 2014), pp. 3-15.

16. Jaap Dronkers and Peter Robert, “Differences in Scholastic Achievement of Public, Private Government-Dependent, and Private Independent Schools: A Cross-National Analysis,” Educational Policy 22, no. 4 (July 2008), pp. 541-77.

17. Martin R. West and Ludger Woessman, “School Choice International: Higher Private School Share Boosts National Test Scores,” Education Next 9, no. 1 (Winter 2009), p. 56-61.

18. Åsa Ahlin, “Does School Competition Matter? Effects of a Large-Scale School Choice Reform on Student Performance,” Uppsala University Department of Economics Working Paper Series, pp. 12-13.

19. Anders Björklund, Per-Anders Edin, Peter Fredriksson, and Alan Krueger, “Education, Equality, and Efficiency: An Analysis of Swedish School Reforms During the 1990s,” Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation Report (2004), p. 117.

20. Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, “Is Swedish School Choice Disastrous—or Is the Reading of the Evidence?,” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, http://www.edchoice.org/Blog/July-2014/Is-Swedish-School-Choice-Disastrous-or-Is-the-Read.

21. Priyanka Anand, Alejandra Mizala, and Andrea Repetto, “Using School Scholarships to Estimate the Effect of Private Education on the Academic Achievement of Low-income Students in Chile,” Economics of Education Review 28, no. 3 (June 2009), p. 379.

22. Claudio Sapelli and Bernardita Vial, “Private vs Public Voucher Schools in Chile: New Evidence on Efficiency and Peer Effects,” Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile Instituto de Economía working paper no. 289 (May 2005).

23. See Martin Carnoy and Patrick J. McEwan, “The Effectiveness and Efficiency of Private Schools in Chile’s Voucher System,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 22, no. 3 (Fall 2000), pp. 213-39, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola, “The Effects of Generalized School Choice on Achievement and Stratification: Evidence from Chile’s Voucher Program,” Journal of Public Economics 90, no. 8-9 (Sept. 2006), pp. 1477-1503.

24. David Bravo, Sankar Mukhopadhyay, and Petra E. Todd, “Effects of School Reform on Education and Labor Market Performance: Evidence from Chile’s Universal Voucher System,” Quantitative Economics 1, no. 1 (July 2010), pp. 47-95.

25. Francisco A. Gallego, “Voucher-School Competition, Incentives, and Outcomes: Evidence from Chile,” Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile working paper (2006).

26. Joshua Angrist, Eric Bettinger, Erik Bloom, Elizabeth King, and Michael Kremer, “Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment,” American Economic Review 92, no. 5 (Dec. 2002), pp. 1535-58.

27. Angrist, Bettinger, and Kremer, “Long-Term Educational Consequences of Secondary School Vouchers: Evidence from Administrative Records in Colombia,” American Economic Review 96, no. 3 (June 2006), pp. 847-62.

28. Victor Lavy, “Effects of Free Choice Among Public Schools,” Review of Economic Studies 77, no. 3 (2010), pp. 1164-91.

29. Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin, and Olmo Silva, “Choice, Competition, and Pupil Achievement,” Journal of the European Economic Association 6, no. 4 (June 2008), pp. 912-47.

30. Alexander Tabarrok, “Private Education in India: A Novel Test of Cream Skimming,” Contemporary Economic Policy 31, no. 1 (Jan. 2013), pp. 1-12.

31. Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman, “The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a Two-Stage Experiment in India,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, no. 19441 (2013).

32. Patrick J. Wolf, Anna J. Egalite, and Pauline Dixon, “Private School Choice in Developing Countries: Experimental Results from Delhi, India,” in Handbook of International Development and Education, ed. Pauline Dixon, Steve Humble, and Chris Counihan (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2015), pp. 456-71.

33. Salman, “Liberate to Learn: Education Vouchers in Pakistan,” pp. 35-41.

Suggested Citation
“How Does School Choice Work in Other Countries?,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last modified July 31, 2015, http://www.edchoice.org/school_choice_faqs/how-does-school-choice-work-in-other-countries.