by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 3 March 2015

We should expect challenges and we will make mistakes, which is why we should try, for example, an area within our district.

MY previous article calling for school choice to be given to all parents attracted responses from many people. I want to thank everyone who took the trouble to send me their thoughts. I was even stopped at Alor Setar airport last Saturday by a lady insisting on giving me a piece of her mind!

While many are curious about the practicality of my ideas, there are some who are completely opposed to them too.

I take both in stride and I am particularly thankful to those who took the time to explain why they disagree with me. I learnt a lot from these exchanges and I am sure I will continue to learn from those who are more experienced than me.

I think it is only fair I respond to some of the main issues raised by readers, especially those who feel that the idea of a school voucher is not workable in Malaysia.

But before that, let us recap what a voucher system actually is.

The name might be “voucher system” but it does not really involve a voucher. The main principle behind this system is that the Government should fund students instead of schools and teachers.

So the Government could simply provide a guarantee letter to the parents, enabling them to take the letter to any education service provider who can then claim the cash from the Government.

In the numerous emails, Twitter and Facebook messages that I received, the most common complaint was that the scheme would discriminate against the poor.

They argued that unlike urban areas, rural areas usually have only one school and therefore it was not possible to exercise choice.

This opinion is correct if the Government introduces vouchers without making it easier to set up new private and charitable schools.

If the bureaucratic requirements are simplified, choice will actually surge in rural areas.

Currently there is only one school in many of the smaller villages because there is no incentive for private providers to open schools there.

But imagine if all parents in the country have a letter from the Government guaranteeing RM10,000 each for them to spend on schools every year.

Within a short period, all sorts of for-profit and charitable schools would open in that price range because everyone has the ability to pay the fees.

Even I might be looking for ways to open a Sekolah Yayasan IDEAS!

Accessibility would no longer become an issue as the scheme would attract new providers to enter the picture. Of course, this would only be the case if the Government simplified the processes to open a private school.

The second criticism is that parents from low-income households would not know how to choose a good school for their kids.

So if they were given a voucher, they might make decisions that could jeopardise the well-being of their own children.

I completely disagree with this suggestion. Even though those making the suggestion may have good intentions, I find the idea arrogant and condescending because it assumes that poor people are stupid and reckless parents.

When I visited low-cost private school in the slums of New Delhi, I spoke to parents who chose to send their children there because they wanted their children to learn better English, there was a higher level of teacher absenteeism in government schools, and they saw more dedication among teachers in the low-cost private schools.

These are people living in the slums of New Delhi with income of less than RM150 per month. Yet they show tremendous commitment to choosing the right schools for their kids and they are meticulous in comparing the quality of one school to another.

To make a blanket assumption that people cannot or will not think because they are poor is simply arrogant. In fact, they may actually be more careful in choosing the right school, compared to many of those who have money to spend.

Third, there are some who suggested that I am not giving enough emphasis on quality because all I want to do is to privatise schools.

On the contrary, the whole idea behind the voucher system is that it will push quality up. A voucher system explicitly links quality to the financial sustainability of a school.

In order to attract a sufficient number of students to pay the costs, schools must prove that they provide quality education. Otherwise they will not get the money that they need.

In order to produce high quality, schools will have to employ the best head teachers, teachers and administrators.

They need to ensure they accept properly trained staff and they also need to provide continuous upskilling opportunities for everyone on their payroll. Otherwise quality will slip and students will go elsewhere.

Moving forward, I urge the Government to pilot a voucher scheme in several selected schools.

This could be an area within one district, in line with the Government’s agenda to transform the District Education Offices by decentralising more powers to them.

Of course we should expect challenges and we will make mistakes. That is why it is important to pilot it first and I would be most happy to contribute the little knowledge that I have to design it.

What matters most is that we ensure our children get the type and the quality of education that they rightly deserve.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs

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