Self-governing schools, parental choice, and the need to protect the public interest 



Those who advocate scaling up charter schooling and voucher programs across the U.S. should heed lessons learned in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England.  


In recent years, policy makers throughout the developed world have embraced a pair of closely linked ideas about how to improve their public education systems. First is the idea that parents should have the right to choose the schools that their children attend. Second is the notion that schools should be self-governing so they can distinguish themselves and thereby offer parents a range of choices.  

We have had the opportunity to live in and write about three countries that have pursued these ideas vigorously — the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England. Given their differing histories, traditions, and national values, these countries enacted these policies in different ways and for quite different reasons, both practical and ideological. But all three had to confront the same underlying challenge: the need to protect broad public interests while respecting those of self-governing schools and parents. 

The private benefits that derive from education are numerous, including access to well-paying jobs, improved health, and the prospect of more personally fulfilling lives, and parents have strong and legitimate reasons to pursue them for their children. However, public interests in education are also compelling. Compulsory, high-quality schooling produces a skilled workforce, an educated citizenry, and higher overall quality of life. Further, and as one of us (Ladd) and her colleagues describe in a forthcoming book, the public interest extends to how educational opportunities are distributed and thus to values of equality, adequacy, and attention to the least advantaged (Brighouse et al., in press).  

Tensions between private and public interests are inevitable in any compulsory public education system. However, they become particularly intense in systems that favor self-governing schools and parental choice — both of which, by definition, privilege the interests of particular actors, be they schools or parents. We highlight here the goals and distributive principles by which these three countries have sought to safeguard public purposes in education, with attention to the successes and limitations of their efforts. Despite the differing contexts, these experiences provide lessons for U.S. policy makers about the need to take explicit actions to protect the public interest. We conclude with three lessons relevant to the contentious policy debates in the U.S. over charters and vouchers.  

The Netherlands  

The prize for the longest-running system of self-governing schools and parental choice goes to the Netherlands. For many years, Dutch society was divided among Protestants, Roman Catholics, and secularists, with members of each group living quite separate lives in what the Dutch referred to as “silos,” which included separate school systems. Before 1917, the government used tax revenue to fund the free secular schools, while parents had to pay tuition for their children to attend Protestant or Catholic schools. That changed with a 1917 constitutional amendment requiring the government to take responsibility for funding all three types of schools. Central to the new system was the concept of “freedom of education,” which gave parents a constitutional right to select an appropriate school for their child and even to collaborate with other parents to set up a new school with state support. All schools, whether under the control of a religious group or a municipality, enjoyed a good deal of operational freedom.  

While catering to parents’ private interests — the ability to choose a school for their child that was consistent with their values — Dutch policy makers were also careful to protect the public interest in two ways. First, to ensure that the quality of education would not depend on the type of school a child attended, the national government provided equal per-pupil resources for all primary schools. (Significantly, each of the three types of schools served families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.) Second, policy makers subjected all publicly funded schools to periodic inspections to ensure that individual self-governing schools conformed to national guidelines and promoted a productive environment for learning (Ladd & Fiske, 2011; Ladd, 2010).  

The system of equal per-pupil resources across all schools worked well until the 1970s, when the Netherlands experienced influxes of migrants from the former Dutch colonies of Antilles and Suriname and, later, of low-skilled migrants from Morocco and Turkey. Given the increasing concentrations of disadvantaged immigrant children in some schools, policy makers realized that equal funding could no longer be relied upon to ensure equal educational opportunity. Clearly, children living in impoverished neighborhoods required more costly services and supports than other children. Hence, in 1985, the government introduced “weighted student funding,” which provided significantly more resources for schools serving large proportions of disadvantaged children, including Dutch children whose parents had low levels of education (Fiske & Ladd, 2010). 

In some Dutch cities, students from immigrant backgrounds now attend schools that are even more highly segregated than big-city schools in the United States. 

Our empirical research, as well as our visits to schools, confirmed that schools with large proportions of highly weighted students did indeed end up with many more teachers and staff than other schools, and the additional funding did help promote equal quality education across schools (Ladd & Fiske, 2011). Largely because of the egalitarian values of the Dutch, as well as their heavy reliance on coalition governments that fostered policy consistency over time, the weights remained remarkably consistent for 20 years and were modified only with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the mid-2000s.  

Nevertheless, while this system of weighted student funding served the public purpose of equalizing educational opportunity, it did not fully address the problems that arise when parental choice and school self-governance run up against the needs of disadvantaged pupils. When choosing schools for their children, parents tend to pay close attention to the racial and economic mix of students in the school. While policy makers had hoped that attaching additional funding to disadvantaged students would serve as an incentive for more affluent parents to enroll their children in integrated schools, this expectation turned out to be overly optimistic. In some Dutch cities, students from immigrant backgrounds now attend schools that are even more highly segregated than big-city schools in the United States (Ladd, Fiske, & Ruijs, 2011). As long as both parents and self-governing schools enjoy the constitutional right to “freedom of education,” no higher-level governing authority can compel schools to collaborate in pursuit of other public goals such as socioeconomic integration.  

New Zealand  

New Zealand is a small country of 4.5 million people, roughly the size of South Carolina. In part because the earliest European settlers in the 19th century were victims of the English class system, the country developed an egalitarian political culture that favored robust governmental efforts to ensure fairness in a range of social and economic areas (Fischer, 2012). Up through the 1980s, the country’s state education system was highly centralized and bureaucratic, with the national Department of Education dictating decisions on everything from curriculum and teacher pay to the manner in which head teachers should furnish their offices. Although New Zealand’s students fared well overall on international comparisons of achievement, policy makers frequently noted that certain student populations, notably Maori and Pacific Islanders, were lagging behind — a situation that was inconsistent with the country’s concern for fairness.  

In 1989, following the recommendations of a citizen task force, the Labour government decided that the route to a more equitable system of education was to radically decentralize the system and make schools more sensitive to the needs of local communities, especially those serving Maori and Pacific Islanders. They stripped the heavy-handed national Department of Education of all operational responsibilities and redefined it as a policy-making body. Schools became independent bodies under the guidance of locally elected boards of trustees controlled by parents, and each school was required to draw up a mission statement — or charter — laying out its goals. To protect the public’s stake in high-quality education, the government set up an Education Review Office, independent of the Ministry of Education, to send trained inspectors to visit and write reports on individual schools. Initially charged with evaluating each school’s success in promoting its school-specific mission, the review office soon recognized the importance of holding all schools accountable to national standards and curricular guidelines (Fiske & Ladd, 2000, ch. 5).   

It became clear that New Zealand’s mixture of school-based governance and parental choice had some unwelcome side effects. 

In 1991, political power shifted to the National Party, which was firmly committed to neoliberal principles of choice and competition. The new government gave parents the right to choose their child’s school, abolished geographically based enrollment zones, and encouraged schools to compete for students. Thus, the new government recast school-based governance, which initially had been seen as an expression of democratic and populist values, as a way to promote managerial efficiency and a competitive environment in which, at least in theory, all boats would rise. 

Once the dust settled on these sweeping reforms, it became clear that New Zealand’s mixture of school-based governance and parental choice had some unwelcome side effects.  

First, competition, by definition, creates both winners and losers, especially when there is not a level playing field. Schools with large proportions of high-performing, middle-class students entered the competition for students with a significant advantage. In contrast, schools serving large concentrations of poor, and typically low-performing, students began at a disadvantage. In the process, these schools lost resources and had even more difficulty attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. Particularly in places such as South Auckland, with high concentrations of Maori and Pacific Islander students, school quality tended to spiral downward — struggling schools would lose students, causing them to lose resources and struggle even more, which would cause them to lose more students, and so on.  

Such a development was clearly contrary to the public stake in promoting a quality education for all students. It also belied the ideological arguments used to justify a market-based approach to public education. The fact was that many schools struggled not so much because they were poorly managed but because they were serving concentrations of low-performing disadvantaged students. Moreover, the more advantaged schools, with attention to their reputations, had few if any incentives to enroll the least advantaged students. The central authorities ultimately had little choice but to provide the direct support needed to keep struggling schools in operation. Otherwise, some students would be left with no schools at all.  

Tensions between private and public interests become particularly intense in systems that favor self-governing schools and parental choice.  

A second significant side effect of the reforms was increased segregation of students, both socioeconomically and ethnically. This segregation reflected the fact that many New Zealand parents, like their Dutch counterparts and, indeed, parents everywhere, tend to judge the quality of a school by the makeup of its student body. Moreover, while schools were obligated to accept all applicants, those that reached capacity had the right to set up application guidelines that effectively gave them control over whom they would accept. In short, in many parts of New Zealand, parental choice morphed into a system by which schools did the choosing.  

The bottom line: The New Zealand reforms of the early 1990s had some positive effects, and no one wanted to go back to the old heavy-handed centralized system. The reforms, however, also raised significant questions about the limits of school autonomy when it comes to balancing public and private interests. And in recent years, discussions have continued about the need to create some form of intermediate level of governance to support schools that do not have the capacity to operate effectively (Wylie, 2012).  


England has a long tradition of parental choice and publicly funded self-governing schools. In addition to those operated by local authorities, parents can enroll their children in schools sponsored by the Church of England and other religious or educational groups. All schools enjoy considerable operational autonomy, and struggling schools receive additional support services from local education authorities responsible for the collective interests of all children in the community. In addition, all schools are subject to periodic visits and public reports by school inspectors from OFSTED, England’s Office of Education Standards (Ladd & Fiske, 2016).  

School autonomy got a boost in 2002 when the Labour government created some secondary school “academies” to serve students in disadvantaged urban areas. The country had a compelling public interest, Labour asserted, in raising the quality of schools for the least advantaged. The government recruited wealthy philanthropists and businesspeople to sponsor and manage new academies that were authorized and funded by the national government, operated outside the control of the local authorities, and received substantial additional funding from their sponsors. If the concept of academies sounds a lot like that of charter schools, which were expanding in the U.S. at that time, that’s because it is. By 2010, there were slightly more than 200 secondary-level academies in England.  

That year, a newly elected coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats greatly expanded the concept to include primary schools as well as schools serving all students, not just those who were disadvantaged. This led to what some observers have referred to as a “Wild West” of academy expansion: By 2016, at least 4,500 academies (or one-fifth of England’s 20,000 schools overall, with secondary schools greatly overrepresented) were operating alongside the system of schools supported by the local authorities. During this period, many academies became parts of “chains” (comparable to what we know in the U.S. as charter management organizations, or CMOs). These chains handled administrative and managerial duties for groups of academies, ranging from a few to several dozen schools.  

When a Conservative government took full power in 2015, it further embraced academies as the embodiment of neoliberal principles of managerial efficiency and free-market competition. In a March 2016 white paper, the new government proposed going all the way by requiring that all schools convert to academy status by 2022. Because of the government’s current preoccupation with Brexit, however, that plan is now simmering on a back burner.  

The new government had learned from the previous expansion that many of the academies lacked the ability to function without some form of external support. Given that some (though clearly not all) of the chains operated effectively, the government proposed in its 2016 white paper that all low-performing schools should be required, and other academies strongly encouraged, to join what are now called Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) — clusters of academies presided over by a strong lead academy or management organization. In addition, to provide oversight to this growing network of MATs, the government also appointed nine regional school commissioners, creating, in effect, an intermediate level of management, positioned between the local academy chains and the government’s education department. 

Much as they might have liked to do away with local authorities entirely, government officials have acknowledged that they cannot do so because the plan for an all-academy system continues to charge local authorities with the obligation to ensure a place for every child in some school. It is unclear, though, how those local authorities will be able to do this, given dwindling resources and limited power to compel academies to enroll particular students.  

We see reasons for other concerns as well. A 2015 study of existing chains documented that while some did quite well by their disadvantaged students, many others did not (Hutchings, Francis, & Kirby, 2015). Moreover, based on interviews that we conducted in spring 2016, we concluded that the government was already struggling to find enough MATs to absorb low-performing primary schools (Ladd & Fiske, 2016) . 

A system of academies also breaks the traditional link between school and community. Local authorities promote collective responsibility for students in their geographic area by sharing resources and coordinating programs. But self-governing academies, especially those belonging to large chains, have few if any roots in the communities where member schools are located. Indeed, ambitious MATs may have organizational interests that directly conflict with those of some of their member academies.  

Finally, the growth of the academy sector can easily undermine democratic control of schools. The English school system has often been characterized as a “national service locally delivered.” That is, while overall policy and funding originated at the national level, schools operated under the authority and discipline of democratically elected local authorities. Schools were responsive to — and gave voice to — local priorities and concerns and served as focal points of community life. A system of academies weakens this traditional social compact.  

Implications for the U.S.  

The experiences of the Netherlands, New Zealand, and England with the twin policies of self-governing schools and expanded parental choice illustrate some of the challenges that arise in efforts to balance private and public interests in education. In their own way, each of the three countries discovered the limits of operational autonomy and had to devise ways to protect public interests. With the expansion of both charter schools and voucher programs in the U.S., policy makers face similar challenges. We highlight three lessons for the U.S. from this brief review of the experiences of the three countries.  

Serious efforts to meet the needs of low-performing schools will require, at a minimum, additional resources and support for their disadvantaged students. 

The first is that the combination of self-governing schools and parental choice alone cannot solve the problems of low-performing schools serving concentrations of disadvantaged students. That conclusion emerges most clearly from New Zealand’s experience with its “downwardly spiraling schools.” Likewise, in England, authorities have begun to acknowledge that MATs cannot replace the support services historically provided by local authorities. As the Dutch learned from their experience with weighted student funding and as the English saw during their early experiment with sponsored academies under the Labour government, serious efforts to meet the needs of low-performing schools will require, at a minimum, additional resources and support for disadvantaged students.  

A second lesson is the potential advantages of an inspectorate-based accountability system for a system of self-governing schools and parental choice, as opposed to the test-based systems so common in the U.S. Unlike test scores, professional inspectors can provide information on the operations of self-governing schools, including, for example, the quality of their school leadership, the coherence of their curriculum, and their capacity to identify and address the needs of their students. The school-level information embedded in inspection reports is more helpful to the schools themselves, to higher-level policy makers, and, importantly, to parents making choices among schools. The three countries provide somewhat different models of such a system, but it would behoove U.S. policy makers to experiment to determine what would work best in the U.S. context. In any case, strong public accountability for the operations of self-governing schools is imperative.  

Finally, the English effort to move to an all-academy system highlights the dangers that can arise when educational decision making is no longer subject to democratic controls. Local authorities are still supposed to guarantee that no children will fall between the cracks, but given the fact that academies are for all practical purposes free to pursue their own private interests, it is not clear who will protect the interests of all children, including the most vulnerable.  

The main challenge for policy makers that arises with the expansion of self-governing schools and parental choice is how to protect the public interests that underlie the creation of a compulsory public education system in the first place. If policy makers do not devise effective methods for doing so, then who will?  

Americans make K-12 education compulsory for all children and support it with public funds because it serves important public as well as private purposes. With the expansion of charter and voucher programs, policy makers need to be vigilant in protecting these important public interests.   


Brighouse, M.H., Ladd, H.F., Loeb, S., & Swift, A. (in press). Educational goods: Values, evidence, and decision making. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.  

Fischer, D.H. (2012). Fairness and freedom: A history of two open societies, New Zealand and the United States. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  

Fiske, E.B. & Ladd, H.F. (2000). When schools compete: A cautionary tale. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. 

Fiske, E.B. & Ladd, H.F. (2010). The Dutch experience with weighted student funding: Some lessons for the U.S. Phi Delta Kappan, 92 (1), 49-53. 

Hutchings, M., Francis, B., & Kirby, P. (2015). Chain effects 2015: The impact of academy chains on low-income students. London, England: The Sutton Trust. 

Ladd, H.F. (2010). Education inspectorate systems in New Zealand and the Netherlands: A policy note. Education Finance and Policy, 5 (3), 378-392. 

Ladd, H.F. & Fiske, E.B. (2011). Weighted student funding in the Netherlands: A model for the U.S.? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30 (3), 470-498.  

Ladd, H.F. & Fiske, E.B. (2016). England confronts the limits of school autonomy. Working Paper No. 232, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. New York, NY: Columbia University.  

Ladd, H.F., Fiske, E.B., & Ruijs, N. (2011). Does parental choice foster segregated schools: Insights from the Netherlands. In M. Berends, M. Cannata, & E.B. Goldring (Eds.), School choice and school improvement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 233-254.  

Wylie, C. (2012). Vital connections. Why we need more than self-managing schools. Wellington, NZ: NZCER. 


Originally published in September 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (1), 31-36. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.


EDWARD B. FISKE ( is an education writer and editor.  
HELEN F. LADD ( is the Susan B. King professor emeritus of public policy, Duke University, Durham, N.C. She, Harry Brighouse, Susanna Loeb, and Adam Swift are the authors of Educational Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision Making (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

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