By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star on 17 February 2015

(FILE PHOTO) School-Voucher Program SupportersOne fine morning, you go to a nearby restaurant to buy roticanai for your
child.  You found that the service was disappointing.  When you get home,
your child complains that the food tastes bad and refuses to eat.

Would you buy roti canai from the same restaurant again?  Would you force
your child to eat the same roti canai every day?  Or would you go to
another restaurant?

Now change the story just a little bit.

Every morning you send your child to school.  Your child comes back telling
you that his teachers were not able to give him the attention that he needs
because there were too many students in the classroom.  His exam results
are consistently not very promising but no one is offering him any extra
help.  And he simply does not enjoy going to school.

Would you send your child to the same school again? Would you force your
child to continue attending the same school day in and day out?  Or would
you look for another school?

The vast majority of us would respond differently to these two scenarios.

We would probably never go again to the restaurant and look for a better
one instead.  The roti canai may cost just one ringgit but you wouldn’t
want your child to risk eating bad food.

But under normal circumstances we would continue sending our child to the
same school and we wouldn’t even think about changing school.  Why is it
that we are meticulous about the risk of a bad roti canai but we don’t care
enough about the risk of bad schooling that can have a life-long impact?

For the vast majority of parents this is actually not about not caring.  Of
course we care.  But we just don’t have a choice.  There are hundreds of
restaurants that sell roti canai but our choice of schools are limited by
what is dictated to us by the government.

In Malaysia the vast majority of us cannot choose the right school for our
children because the government controls schools with a tight grip.  The
government only allows you to choose if you have money.  If you don’t have
money, then tough luck.  You just have to accept what is given to you.

Many countries have decided to end this discrimination against the poor.
They believe that every child matters and every child deserves to get the
quality education that they want.

To give choice to everyone, including and especially the poor, these
countries modify the way their schools are funded.

Conventionally, the government uses taxpayers’ money to fund government
schools and the schools then take in the children.  If you can afford it,
you can opt for private education by paying the fees yourself.  This is
what we have in Malaysia today.

If the government really wants to end education inequality, then a better
funding model would be one in which the government funds students instead
of schools.  This will ensure even the poorest have the ability to choose.

Globally the system is known as the ‘school voucher’ programme.  Several
countries have had this system in place for a long time.

For example the Netherlands is a constant high performer in the
international benchmark of education quality Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA).  The country started implementing a school
voucher programme in 1917 and it continues until today.

Sweden is also another high performer in the PISA ranking.  They introduced
the voucher system in 1992 and the country has seen a growth in
not-for-profit and for-profit private schools.

Colombia introduced a targeted secondary school voucher scheme in the 1990s
wherein 125,000 vouchers are provided to people residing in poor
neighbourhoods.  The programme was so popular, it became oversubscribed
within a short time.  The poor students receiving vouchers generally
performed better academically compared to their peers.

More recently, and closer to home, the Asian Development Bank announced in
December 2014 that they are providing USD300 million to support sweeping
reforms, spearheaded by the government, including a voucher system to help
cover tuition fees for an estimated 800,000 senior high school students
each year.

Generally speaking, a school voucher is a system in which the government
issues a guarantee that they will pay the school when the child registers
to study there.  The government can issue a letter to parents, and parents
then take the letter to the school where they want to register their
child.  Parents do not receive any money from the government.  The money
goes directly to the school.

The concept may seem simple but the implication is vast.  Firstly, the
model empowers and respects parental rights, keeping them involved in
making important decisions about their child’s future.  This in itself is a
major shift from what we have today.

Secondly, while education remains free for the students, vouchers bring
market discipline into the picture.  Schools need to prove that they are
good at educating the children.  If they fail to provide good quality
education, parents can take the child to another school because they now
have the purchasing power.

The competition between schools will result in a race to the top, with
every school trying to be better than the other. The combination of
parental choice and inter-school competition will ultimately push up
educational quality for the benefit of every child in the country.

If we are serious about improving our schools, we should demand that the
government pilots the voucher system soon.  A good government will not tell
us that they see more value in choosing a good roti canai over good


Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy
and Economic Affairs (

Image credits

This article was published in The Star newspaper as per below
wan school choice

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