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Here is an innovative solution to SA’s sub-standard education, school vouchers

By Mbulelo Nguta

South Africa spends more money per student on education than any other African country and more money than many countries in the world but our education outcomes are disgraceful. We rank at the bottom in all international rankings on literacy, maths and science. The Centre for Development and Enterprise will tell you that out of 100 learners who started schooling in 2003, only 48 reached matric in 2014, only 36 passed and only 14 qualified to go to university.

There is one ultimate cause for our inferior education: the government. You might blame it on the unions, apartheid and other factors but all of this ultimately comes back to the government and the role it plays in education. Milton Friedman identified three roles governments traditionally play in education: legislating for compulsory education, financing education and running schools. He argued that the first two are justifiable while the last one is indefensible. He was right in 1955 and he still is.

Why is it that a school run by a government is more likely to fail than a school run by private individuals? Why is it that any enterprise or organisation run by the government is more likely to fail than one run by private individuals? There can be no convincing explanation than that of Friedman. There is strong motivation to succeed in all enterprises run by private individuals than there is in those run by the government. And this is why. If an enterprise run by private individuals fails, they have to close it down or dig into their pockets to keep it going. So in order to avoid digging into their own pockets, they are forced to become innovative and efficient.

But it is different when it comes to the government. When a government enterprise fails, it doesn’t have to close down. Instead, more money is thrown into it and this money does not come from the people who are responsible for the failure of the enterprise. It comes from taxpayers. You might have seen it with Eskom, SAA, the SABC and other failed entities. This is why government schools fail in South Africa. The people who run these schools do not have the right motivation for them to succeed. This is why it is not unusual that textbooks are never delivered on time or at all, vacancies are never filled despite available resources and there is generally no appetite for quality education.

If a legitimate independent school operated as inefficiently as a government school, parents would take their children away and the school would ultimately have to close down. So in order to avoid this, independent schools are forced to run efficiently and deliver good results.

Parents naturally want the best for their children. But if that is the case, you may ask, then why don’t the parents in failing government schools take their children away from those schools? They don’t because they lack the income and the means to exercise choice of good schools for their children. Consequently their children are trapped in drop-out factories styled as “no-fee schools”. No-fee schools are inferior schools. They provide inferior education to disadvantaged children who have no alternative to the inferior education they provide. There are 12 million South African children who face this cruel fate against half a million middle-class children who have access to good schools. Unequal education is wrong because it perpetuates inequality. But we can easily solve this by giving the same choice of good schools to poor children.

Has the time not come for South Africa to give targeted school vouchers to disadvantaged children in order to enable them and their parents to shop for good schools and quality education? A school voucher is simple and works like this. A qualifying child gets an annual token with a value of R10 000 which he must use to attend a good school of choice and the government pays the money directly to the school.

Critics of choice will raise a number of objections against the school voucher idea such as that we do not have an enough independent schools to accommodate every child, that such a measure would enrich capitalists, that it would be too expensive and government schools would be empty. But research shows that these cannot be valid objections to the implementation of school vouchers. Middle-class families, including those of our politicians in government, already exercise choice on the education of their children. President Jacob Zuma educated his son, Duduzane Zuma, at Pretoria Boys High School while he could have easily sent him to a nearby government school. He thus exercised choice. If he can exercise choice on the education of his own children, why can’t the same choice be extended to poor families?

Mbulelo Nguta is from the Eastern Cape and lives in Midrand.

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