The relevance of school choice

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by City Press on 25 January 2024

With matric results season in full swing, the private school group Curro has been making news; specifically, its Cooper College in Johannesburg – which achieved a 50% pass rate for its 2023 matric class – has received attention. Parents of some learners at this Curro school are planning on transferring them. Wouldn’t that option, of choosing where your child goes, be great if it were to be offered to everyone?

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam results for 2023 were recently released by the Minister of Basic Education. The National Senior Certificate is the qualification written by students enrolled at public/government run institutions or ones that have some form of government funding.

The problems with the public school system have been well documented by the author and they go far beyond matric results. Even though the results of the class of 2023 were the highest in the history of the NSC, a great achievement in its own right, much still needs to be done.

The students at Cooper College were not writing NSC exams. They were writing Cambridge International AS level exams. The exams written by the students at Curro are by all accounts much more rigorous and overall better than NSC examinations.

The parents of the learners who failed their exams at this Curro school have been reported as being quite reasonably upset. The fees of the school are said to be triple that of public schools and parents are demanding answers, with some having resolved to find alternative schools.

The school has already resolved to offer an opportunity for the students to rewrite their exams, with a meeting being planned with parents as a collective and individually. There are already solutions, whilst the story of the problem was still news!

Why is it that Curro seemingly responds so swiftly to this problem? Curro has a self-interest in retaining the money the parents pay as fees, whilst parents have a self-interest in making sure they get the best value for the money they pay as fees.

A parent of a child at Curro can simply choose to take their child out of the school if they are not happy with performance. This choice, this freedom to take away your money as a parent, is part of the reason – aside from the Cooper College school instance – that private schools like Curro produce such good results.

A parent of a child in a public school – even though the school is funded by said parent’s taxes – finds it difficult to pick and choose to which school their child goes. Geographical location is used as a determinant for school placement by the state. Therefore, if you are unfortunate enough to live in an area with a poorly performing school, you are most likely stuck with it unless you send your child to a higher quintile school or a private school outright.

Why can’t every parent have choice? Since every parent is a taxpayer in some regard, why doesn’t every parent have the ability to take their child, and tax Rands, out of a school that is not performing well and transfer them to a better school of their choosing?

As we are decrying the poor performance of Curro’s Cooper College, let us take a moment to realise that millions of learners are not as fortunate as those ones who attended this school. For most, a bad pass rate for a school is simply a reality that has minimal prospects of changing.

A voucher system through which the funding the Department of Basic Education gets from Treasury is divided among all registered learners in South Africa and converted to vouchers which can be used at a school of the parent’s choosing, is the answer. The Free Market Foundation has been on the forefront of championing this idea in South Africa and as the issue of students is in the news again, making the case for school choice is necessary.

Even though it is regrettable that there will be students who fail their studies, the ability of parents to choose the schools they take their children, and punish those they do not by taking away their funding, is necessary. As was explained earlier, self-interest is a great incentive for performance in contracts.

We all love choice in most, if not all, aspects of our lives. To create an environment similar to private schools in terms of incentive structure, a voucher system to enable school choice is needed. Lest the millions of children who are stuck at schools with worse pass rates than 50%, continue down the road to serfdom upon which their schooling has put them.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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