Worlds of Education

A packed classroom in a Primary School, Malawi, February 2013 (GPE/Tara O'Connell).
A packed classroom in a Primary School, Malawi, February 2013 (GPE/Tara O'Connell).

Education: A Choice or a Right?

published 28 April 2017 updated 24 July 2023

by Frank Adamson, PhD

The United Nations has identified “free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education” by 2030 as a goal for sustainable development. This goal reaffirms the right to education guaranteed by countries in multiple U.N. declarations over the last half-century. [i] Although these treaties reflect a general consensus that everyone has a right to education, most countries do not actually deliver on this promise. To address the issue, different countries are organizing their education systems based on contrasting values. Some countries have placed the responsibility for choosing schools on families, while others have delivered the right to education at a system-level, with the latter approach correlating with better national outcomes.

Instead of countries delivering on their U.N. treaty commitments to the right to education, some have proposed that parental choice should drive the education “marketplace.” This approach varies across countries. In countries in the global south such as India and Uganda, families can “choose” to send their children to “low fee” private schools, or else their children will likely not receive an education. In countries in the global north like Sweden and the U.S., school “choice” usually happens when governments give parents the option to leave public schools. However, in both cases, governments place the responsibility on the family to figure out the best option for their child instead of fulfilling their child’s right to a free, equitable, high quality education.

Even more problematic is the reality that school “choice” does not guarantee a better education, for a variety of reasons. One issue is that, when a charter school or low-fee private school does provide a good education, everyone wants to go there and there are not enough spots for every student. And that’s the best-case scenario. The more common problem is that schools of choice do not provide higher quality education. In addition, they often exclude certain types of harder and/or more expensive-to-each students – those with disabilities, discipline histories, lower socio-economic status – as well as racial and ethnic minorities and second-language learners. These students may have lower scores on the tests used to judge schools or they may require extra attention from teachers, incentivizing these schools to choose their students, instead of students being able to choose their schools. [ii]

The results are not surprising because these schools compete with each other instead of providing education to everyone. School choice systems operate under a market-based rationale. In this marketplace, schools depend on competition to get students to enroll. This sounds like a great idea—the companies (schools) that produce the best product (education) have the most customers (students), while those that don’t will go out of business (closing the school). But market-based approaches require schools to seek a competitive advantage that leads to their exclusionary approaches. And when these schools exclude the more “expensive” students, these students end up in overcrowded and underperforming schools that lack basic services, or, even worse, without the opportunity for an education at all.

Countries seeking to provide a free, equitable, quality education aren’t trying to create competitive advantage within their systems. Instead, they fulfill their “education as a human right” imperative at the system level by investing in teachers and infrastructure. Their public investments produce some of the highest outcomes on international assessments, with smaller differences between students, meaning the systems function more equitably. These countries, including Finland, Singapore, Canada, Cuba, and others, have signed at least some of the U.N. treaties that declare the right to education, have opted for investing in their public education systems instead of pursuing market-based approaches that lead to inequity, and continually deliver high quality education to their citizens. Instead of forcing parents to choose schools, or even be chosen by schools, countries employing market-based approaches would do well to shift their focus towards ensuring the educational rights of their citizens on a proven pathway to better outcomes.

Dr. Frank Adamson is a Senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the views of this organization.

[i] See the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 26 and the Convention of the Rights of a Child (1989), Article 28 as examples. While the United States has not ratified all of these treaties, many state constitutions within the U.S. contain provisions guaranteeing the right to education. See the Education Commission’s 50 State Review for a state-by-state summary.

[ii] See Carnoy et al.’s research on vouchers and Adamson et al.’s research on education markets and charter schools in New Orleans.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.