Most people don’t know this, but the Netherlands has had a universal school voucher system since 1917.
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a second, all of these people tell me that if we have school vouchers, they will drive wedges in our communities and lead to intolerance and social turmoil. From what I know from my kids’ trips to Amsterdam, the Netherlands is a . . . tolerant place.”
Even though school vouchers were initially proposed in the Netherlands so that different religious communities could essentially segregate themselves in response to centuries of strife between Catholics and Protestants, over time they have been part of a country that is growing less sectarian. While I have no direct proof, I would wager that decreasing the number of fights over what gets taught in school has helped folks get along better.
But in addition to facilitating social cohesion, the voucher system in the Netherlands has helped create a really solid education system. On the 2012 international PISA exam, the Netherlands ranked 4th in the world in math, 8th in science, and 10th in reading. It isn’t necessarily fair to compare the Netherlands with a country that is 20 times larger and substantially more diverse, but for reference, the United States ranked 27th, 20th, and 17th on those tests, respectively.
Specifically, access to private schooling has helped Dutch students. A 2013 study in Education Economics used some nifty statistical footwork (an instrumental variables analysis to account for the selection bias that would otherwise make comparisons between private school and non–private school students inappropriate) to reveal strong positive effects for students using the voucher program to attend private schools. The effects were anywhere between 0.2 and 0.3 standard deviations, which would move a student at the mean of the standard bell curve of student performance up 10 or so percentile points (from a 50 to a 60).
Given these large effects, it shouldn’t be surprising that in a system where two thirds of the schools are private, we see strong academic performance. What’s more, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, Dutch schools spend on average $1,500 less per student per year than American schools do.
The Netherlands is more than canals and bicycles. It is a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society with an education system with parental choice at its heart. While it would be impossible (and even if possible, unwise) to try and import the Dutch education system to America, it does shed light on key concerns that Americans have with a system driven by school choice. Far from underperformance and balkanization, we see tolerance and success—two things we can always use more of around these parts.