Finding ways to let schools fight for better quality education

Finding ways to let schools fight for better quality education
Taken from JP; Friday, November 16, 2007

M. Ali, Manchester, England

Discussions about education in Indonesia have recently focused noticeably on matters of the state budget for education and general complaints that there simply is still not enough money being put into the supply of education in this country.

While it may be true the government is still not meeting its long-established legislated commitments to education, this discussion may in fact be missing a more important point. It may be that we need to address more carefully the efficiency of existing budgets.

The demand for education in Indonesia is massive and so problematic that we must question whether just throwing money at the problem is really going to solve anything. Instead we might think about how the money we have for education may be better used, and how more money can be attracted into education.

The cries for more money for education claim we need to finance the building of more schools, we need to renovate existing schools and we need to pay teachers more. But more is sometimes not the answer and in effect more can end up equaling less.

Certainly more financial support for schools seems a logical request when it is possible to see schools that are terribly underfunded and practically falling down, but we need to create a drive and ambition to improve. If we just throw more money at the problem, the problem may not go away.

There have already been many stories of people working in education squandering money either corruptly for themselves or in nepotistic practices to support their families and friends. If more money is just given up to such people, the problems may be exacerbated rather than relieved.

In the U.S., education spending is said to have increased 100 percent over the last 30 years and yet the graduation rates and general levels of achievement of students there have remained almost the same.

This has led people to conclude that more money can equal wasted money. It has also led to the conclusion that there is not a link between putting more money into education and improving student achievement. Without sufficient motivation and stimulation, schools can end up remaining the same.

The status quo can be so deeply rooted in the minds of educators and education managers that even with more money at their disposal only relatively limited change will occur. What they need is a stimulant, a prod or poke to get them moving and drive them to change and improve.

But what is the stimulant? Competition could be the answer. If more money is just given to schools, their managers and teachers, there is the danger that money will just be wasted in existing and effective practices. What is needed is a different approach and practice that creates a context for change and improvement.

In some countries a system of education vouchers is used that creates a new approach for schools and their management. In this system, vouchers are given to families to choose which schools to send their children to.

Parents are then encouraged to research and learn about the schools. They are effectively asked to act as consumers and check on the quality of the schools available to them and then make a choice, of course, for the best or most suitable school for their child.

This creates an immediate context for schools that forces them to compete and work harder or better to achieve results and also income through the enrollment of students. It ends the condition of the status quo by forcing schools to be more responsive and proactive.

In a monopolistic environment the impetus and need to change is negated. In a monopolistic environment of state-run schools, schools can be negligent and even arrogant toward the students and their parents. But a voucher system that empowers parents and their children to choose, challenges the status quo.

With a voucher system that stimulates competition, good money is not being thrown at bad practices, or in this case, bad schools. Schools that are failing will be seen for what they are and will effectively be shamed into change or even closure.

In this voucher system of choice, schools are encouraged to pursue success. Through success they can and will attract more students; success then breeds success. As parents see successful schools they will choose them and avoid failing schools.

This has been shown in the U.S. state of Florida, where a voucher system has been adopted. There it was found that vouchers actually led to better education being supplied to students at a more efficient cost. Bad state-run schools were forced to improve themselves as they lost students to schools that performed better.

There are basic and understandable economics laws or theories at work here. Competition can create a context for empowering the consumers, and in this particular context the consumers are parents and their children. With competition comes more choice.

Where consumers are given a choice that choice can influence and alter the supply; the consumers will naturally seek quality and cost-effective options. This means that suppliers (in this context the schools) will be forced to provide quality and so, too, work efficiently with the funds they have.

More money for schools in Indonesia is certainly required but before more money is pumped in, rigorous structuring and goal-setting should be set in place. We cannot allow or afford waste. A scheme such as school vouchers could be one way in which more targeted funding may be achieved.

This is critical; we may all recognize that there is a need for greater funding of education but we should demand better and more effective use of funds. Competition can help stimulate both a change in approach and an improvement in performance.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Cunningham Research Centre, Manchester, England.