While Charter Schools Flourish in England and Sweden, Colombia’s Fear Political Takeover

EspañolIn last week’s edition of The Spectator, English philosopher Roger Scruton argued that, when the state monopolizes education, one usually ends up with an imposed model that reflects the views of either the traditional left or the traditional right, depending on who is in power.

The former tends to see equality of results as education’s ultimate goal and “schooling as a form of social engineering.” The latter frequently regards education as a purely utilitarian matter, a nation’s economic growth being the vital aim. In either case, knowledge that “gets in the way” of the ideological objective must be set aside. Thus the state, by imposing an educational model by fiat upon the whole of society, obstructs the natural collaboration that should take place between teacher and student.

The school, Scruton writes,

is a paradigm of the “little platoon” extolled by Edmund Burke. It ought to be a place of free co-operation … a place of teams and clubs and experiments, of choirs and bands and play-acting, of exploration, debate and inquiry. All those things occur naturally when adults with knowledge come into proximity with children eager for a share of it.… And it is when the school can set its timetable, its budget and its educational goals that an ethos of commitment will emerge.

In England, the “free schools revolution” unleashed by the current Conservative-led government — better known as charter schools in North America — has revived the notion of the school as a Burkean platoon. As the BBC reports, free schools are “funded directly by central government” but set up and run by non-profit “groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts (and) religious or voluntary groups.”

Between 2010 and 2013, Michael Gove, the Conservative education secretary, approved and oversaw the opening of more than 170 free schools. Their autonomy rests, the BBC notes, on their independence from local authorities and their “increased control over their curriculum, teachers’ pay and conditions, and the length of school terms and days.”

In my experience, self-described lefties are usually surprised — perhaps outraged would be the mot juste — to learn that Gove’s inspiration for English free schools was the “Swedish model.” As Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator explains, the Tories “adopted their system not from one of the many American states which have voucher schools but from Sweden.”

Though still the object of Latin-American leftists’ utopian visions of a “socialistic,” nanny state society, Sweden in fact overcame its financial troubles of the early 1990’s with an unexpected yet vigorous turn toward “radical individualism, a stress on balanced budgets and decentralization” (see Nelson’s article on Sweden’s libertarian finance minister Anders Borg).

Under the new Swedish model, Nelson writes, creativity determines policy. This means that private companies “run hospitals, the underground and even (charter/free) schools.” These have existed in Sweden since 1994 and can be established by “pretty much anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state’s expense,” as The Economist reports.

Although no fee can be charged — the municipality pays the provider the equivalent of what it would cost to educate each student in the state sector per annum — the provider is allowed to make a profit as long as students are admitted “on a first-come, first-served basis.” The result has been the emergence of free school chains which, cherished by parents seeking to avoid schools run by municipal councils, now educate 20 percent of Swedish students finishing secondary education.

Under Gove’s model, English free schools are not yet allowed to make a profit. Nonetheless, the program has led to the creation of institutions such as the West London Free School in Hammersmith. Founded by journalist Toby Young, the school offers children of all backgrounds a classical liberal education that includes intensive musical training and compulsory Latin up to the age of 14.

Schools such as this one are proving that, as long as the administration is not left to the state, an education of elite quality can be accessible to anyone.

In both Sweden and England, the truly groundbreaking aspect of the free school revolution has been the transfer of power from the state bureaucracy to the citizenry. Parents have long financed state education with their taxes, but now that they have the option of choosing a free school run by a private provider, they have a greater say than ever when it comes to deciding how their children are educated with public funds.

Swedish and English free schools are far from perfect, but they embody Scruton’s ideal to a great extent: schools, he writes, “should be liberated from the politicians and given back to the people.” In a free society, citizens, not subsidized pen pushers, should determine whether a child receives a classical, religious, vocational, or natural science-based education, or any other form of state-financed schooling.

Back on this side of the ocean, in Colombia’s capital, 25 free or charter schools of sorts (colegios en concesión) have operated successfully since 1999, but they are in danger of reverting from the hands of civil society to the grasping claws of statist politicians and trade union pressure groups. Now that Gustavo Petro has been officially removed from his post as Bogotá’s Mayor for disciplinary transgressions (dura lex sed lex, I say), there is hope for their survival.

I will expand on this in my next column.

Nota bene: I lost in my first bid for the Colombian Parliament with 3,328 votes (I needed about 11,000 to win). A defeat is always bitter, but at least we know that there are over 3,000 Bogotá residents willing to vote for liberty. Surely this is a good starting point.

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