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The Case For School Choice: Denmark

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Of the four countries in this report, Denmark's large, publicly supported, sector of independent schools is unique. Its long-established tradition of government-financed vouchers, supported by every political party, illustrates the country's public commitment to school choice. It demonstrates that dependence upon government funding does not necessarily compromise the autonomy of independent schools, even over the long term. Rather, public funding of private choice has produced a diversity of educational alternatives in Denmark that is unparalleled in the Western world.


Independent education has a long tradition in Denmark. Ever since general education was made mandatory in 1849, the government has upheld parents' freedom to select their children's schools--whether for religious, ethical, pedagogical or political reasons (Denmark, Undervisnings Ministeriet 1999). The Danish concept of public education differs fundamentally from that established by Luther and Calvin in the first European "public" school systems and imitated by the Puritans, who established the first American "public" schools. The religious founders of "public education" in most western countries sought to remove parental control from the education process in order to propagate adherence to a single system of beliefs. The notion that children's education should be determined not by their parents but by the state is still held by the educational establishment in most Western countries, including Canada. (For a discussion of the history of free, compulsory public education, see Rothbard 1974; West 1970.)

The Danish educational system, however, developed from the belief that parental authority over education should be paramount and that a truly democratic system of government-run education would be impossible without a range of independent, publicly funded, alternatives. The Danish believe:

[t]he free choice of school and education is of central importance to a well-functioning education system. Apart from the fact that it is a goal in itself to give the students a free choice, a free choice of school and education will also further the schools' initiative and industry. (OECD 1995b: 39)

Independent schools in Denmark have provided educational choice for families throughout the country since the first half of the nineteenth century and today they educate about 13 percent of elementary and lower-secondary school students. Followers of N.F.S. Grundtvig, the nineteenth-century social, religious, and educational reformer, preached about inspiration and individual freedom and developed schools that offered an alternative to the strictly-disciplined, examination-oriented schools developed by the affluent and academically ambitious urban communities. The Grundtvig model flourished in the rural areas where liberal thinking and a practical education were preferred (Hansen 1993: 2). Over the past century, the two models have borrowed ideas from one another and today's Danish government schools reflect aspects of both models.

The freedom of Danish independent schools has prepared the way for schools with diverse educational environments, which cater to a variety of learning styles and educational goals. They can be divided into several popular types:

Lilleskoler ("Little Schools"): Progressive schools that emphasize group work and individual responsibility;

Realskoler: Academically rigorous schools that often emphasize reading, languages, and the sciences in an orderly environment;

Religious Schools: These are, like the Danish population, nominally Christian but usually involve few or no formal religious practices. Their student body is often, and their staff occasionally, unaffiliated with the particular church to which the school is linked. They are often characterized by traditional values and a familial atmosphere;

Friskole ("Free Schools"): Grundtvigian schools are found primarily in rural districts and emphasize individual growth, oral traditions, and relationships among individuals;

German Minority Schools: Established for the historically recognized German minority in Southern Juttland but open for any families in that area who would like their children to study the German culture and language as well as Danish in school.

The Danish Voucher System

School choice in Denmark is achieved through a system of public vouchers for independent schooling. Approximately 75 percent of municipal spending on schools follows students who enroll in independent schools. The Ministry of Education pays a sum per pupil to each independent school. The exact amount varies depending upon the size of the school, the age of the students, and the age of the teachers. The municipality relieved of the responsibility of education reimburses the Ministry with the majority of that amount, a fixed 22,000 Danish kroner in 1995.

The government requires independent schools to charge tuition to all parents except those for whom it would cause undue financial hardship. The Danes believe that a family's commitment to independent education should be substantiated by a financial contribution, and that parental interest and control would be diminished if independent schools were financed entirely by the public purse. If parents choose an independent school over a municipal school, they must pay tuition of at least DKr3,500 (about CDN$720) per year. Tuition is affordable--the average compulsory school charges DKr7,439 (CDN$1,518) per annum (Olesen 1998), while the average secondary school charges DKr8,500 (CDN$1,735) (Hansen 1998). The competitive nature of the education market prevents tuition fees from escalating.

The Effect of Vouchers on Government Schools

The benefits of this voucher system, as the Ministry of Education recognizes, extend beyond the minority of families who choose independent schools to the majority who attend government-run schools. Danish municipal schools imitate successful practices pioneered in the independent sector because they risk losing pupils and popular support if they do not. Research conducted by the OECD has found that:

Municipal schools are starting to replicate the model of parental involvement developed in [independent] schools. In 1989, school boards with a majority of parent members were established at all [government] schools and increasing decentralization to these boards is foreseen. Parents are also gradually obtaining a freer choice of [government] school within their municipality. (OECD 1994: 147)

The number of parents choosing independent schools grew by 50 percent in the course of a few years during the 1980s. The municipal schools responded when it became clear that they were losing students.

Supporters of monolithic systems of government education often claim that publicly subsidized parental choice would lead to a deterioration of the existing "public" schools; teachers' unions in the United States and Canada, for example, often use this as an argument against the establishment of charter schools or public vouchers. They fear municipal schools would become dumping grounds for children whose parents lack the interest or ability to find them a space at the superior independent schools. In Denmark, school choice has had the opposite effect. Public perception of government schools has improved as choice has become more widely available.

In Denmark, schools operated by the government are not regarded as being inferior to independent schools, as they often are in countries without school choice. This observation is reflected in parents' reasons for selecting one school over another (Cordt 1998; Rasmussen 1998). They are unlikely to choose an independent school so their children may associate with a more affluent peer group or because it has better facilities or more rigorous academics. More often, they select the school for its pedagogical approach, for its principal and teachers, or because they feel their child would benefit more from an alternative educational environment.

Franz Christiansen, the chairman of the German Minority Schools of Nordschleswig, says generations of German and Danish families have sent children to his schools because they would like their children to grow up in a bilingual environment. He and Phillipp Rogge, principal of the German Minority school in Hadersleben, agree that public support for their schools shows the respect held by the Danish people for the significant German population in that area. They believe that granting freedom and support for independent schools is a vital tool for integrating minority groups successfully into a majority culture (Christiansen and Rogge 1998).

Similar success has been experienced by Jorgen Cordt, Principal of Bordings Friskole, a primary school where story-telling and student expression are preferred over memorization and formal testing. His experience confirms the findings of educational research: children are much more likely to succeed at school if parents understand and support the method used by the school to educate them (Chubb and Moe 1990:147-49). He offers a summer camp to introduce interested families to the friskole educational environment before they decide to enroll a child. Cordt and the principal of the neighboring municipal school maintain a collegial relationship and identify students who might be better suited to other's educational environment (Cordt 1998).

The student selection process at Bordings Friskole and the German Minority School is typical of Danish independent schools: their principals accept every student they have room to enroll. Their policy is to welcome all families, introduce the school's educational philosophy and let the families decide if they want their children to attend that school. By offering pedagogical alternatives, they provide competition to the local municipal schools, they encourage all schools to respond to the educational needs of their community. The result is that government schools are as highly esteemed as their independent counterparts.

Independent Education in Denmark

Today, the demand for independent schooling in Denmark is greater than ever. Independent schools, which enrolled eight percent of students in 1982 and 11 percent in 1992 (OECD 1994: 146), enrolled 13 percent of elementary school students in 1998 (Olesen 1998). As noted, public financing of privately controlled choice retains the support of all parties in the Danish parliament, who believe that municipal schools benefit from "the experience and competition offered by the private schools" (Denmark, Undervisnings Ministeriet 1999: 1). Government legislation for independent schools (for students aged seven to 16 years) "contains detailed rules about government financial support but only the most general rules about the educational content. There are, for example, almost no rules about the Ministry of Education's control of the educational performance of the schools" (Denmark, Undervisnings Ministeriet 1999: 1-2). Danish experience shows that it is at least possible for independent schools to remain truly autonomous while they receive government funding, even over the long term.

The autonomy enjoyed by independent schools varies according to the kind of education they offer. Independent schools serving students from seven to 16 years old (the years of compulsory education) have a great deal of pedagogical freedom, as do the technical and vocational schools for older students. The independent gymnasia, or university-preparatory schools, have comparatively little independence (Traberg 1998).

Compulsory Schools

Compulsory (primary and lower secondary) schools are completely autonomous as long as they teach the basic subjects and maintain parental support. This policy has produced a unique array of educational choice. An OECD report states that, "the laissez-faire approach to private schools in Denmark produces a diversity unparalleled in other OECD countries" (OECD 1994: 146).

In order to establish a school and receive public vouchers, a parent or educator must only gather a few willing families and establish a board of governors. Smaller schools receive an allocation per pupil that is up to 1.45 times that of larger schools. The weighting is determined by the independent schools' own association and it reflects a common desire to encourage schools in small, rural communities as well as in urban centers. It also reflects the Danish preference for small schools where students, parents, and staff know the whole school community. Many Danes feel that the atmosphere of bigger schools, which are easier and cheaper for a bureaucracy to administer, can be more like a factory than an extended family (Olesen 1998).

Schools are free to determine their own student enrolment; they may select or expel students on whatever grounds they choose. This freedom reflects a trust of, and respect for, educators and a tolerance for a variety of educational choices. It also reflects a belief that freedom is necessary both to attract innovative and visionary educators and to provide schools that can cater to diverse student bodies.

The autonomy of independent schools is curtailed only by the regulation that they must pay teachers the same as municipal schools. According to Per Kristensen, an independent school principal and the Chairman of the Independent Compulsory School Association, this seemingly minor restriction means schools have little control over 63 percent of their budgets. As charter schools in the United States and fully funded schools in New Zealand have proven, freeing schools to make their own salary decisions has proven to be beneficial for the teachers as well as for the educational achievement of the students.

The competitive market in compulsory-level education has resulted in a responsive government school system that is chosen by the majority and a vital and dynamic association of independent schools for a broadly based minority.

Upper Secondary Schools, Vocational and Technical Schools

After finishing compulsory school, Danish students have a choice of enrolling in a university-preparatory gymnasium, a technical or vocational school, or of leaving school altogether. At this level of schooling, competition for students is greater among the technical and vocational schools, which compete for students with both the academic stream and each other, than it is among the academic gymnasia themselves.

The gymnasia are a highly regulated group of schools and the independent gymnasia do not enjoy a freedom comparable to the primary and lower secondary schools. As a result, the independent gymnasia are indistinct from their municipal counterparts. They must offer subjects and examinations set by the government and follow a strictly defined curriculum and number of lessons per week. This dearth of flexibility means there are fewer incentives for educators to establish independent gymnasia or for students to enroll in them. Not surprisingly, independent schools enrol only five percent of all gymnasia students.

Policy makers in Denmark argue that upper secondary education is not compulsory and that students, if they want other options, can choose technical or vocational training or leave school altogether. They believe all students applying to university should have the same preparation and be judged by the same examinations. International evidence suggests that national examinations do encourage accountability (see Bishop 1998) but that student achievement might be greater if schools had more control over how students were prepared for them.19 The 1995 OECD Reviews of National Policies for Education in Denmark called the government's regulations complex, prescriptive about details, and inflexible in responding rapidly to changing circumstances (OECD 1995b: 109).

In the past decade, reforms have been implemented to improve the "efficiency and effectiveness" of the vocational secondary schools. These schools were given increased autonomy, new targets, and freedoms that enabled them to compete for students. The heads of vocational schools believe that the new autonomy and accountability allows them to provide better educated and better trained manpower for the labor market without substantially increasing costs (OECD 1995b: 111). These schools have usually received less funding than their academic counterparts. As the OECD Review states, "gymnasia are more generously funded than technical and commercial colleges . . . [which] undermines the development of competition for students between different providers and does nothing to raise the status and attractiveness of vocational schools" (OECD 1995b: 103). Despite this handicap, the vocational schools are successfully forging important niches and attractive educational images for themselves, thanks wholly to the new public policy.

Public Information and
Accountability of Schools

Denmark has no formal mechanism for disseminating information about schools' methods, programs, or academic results; parents must rely on word of mouth for recommendations. Denmark's five million people live mostly in small communities, and outside Copenhagen there are seldom more than a couple of independent schools a family could practically choose. Parents, thus, are always able to come and meet the principal, visit the school and speak to other parents before they decide to enroll their child.

Although this informal system of information exchange is inexpensive and seems to work to the general satisfaction of parents and educators (Christiansen 1998; Cordt 1998; Kristensen 1998; Olesen 1998; Traberg 1998), it reflects the dearth of accountability evident in much of Danish social policy. The lack of any attempt, either by a government agency or a private organization, to quantify or describe the strengths and weaknesses of their schools means that school choice in Denmark is highly subjective. The lack of interest in objective comparison is reflected by the fact that Denmark is one of the few OECD countries whose primary school students do not participate in the international mathematics and science tests, TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study). The OECD Review describes the system as:

Peculiarly unreflective about its own performance . . . the tendency [is] to seek quality assurance by "front-loading" the system [in the government-run compulsory schools and all the gymnasia] through detailing what should be taught and examined, by ensuring high quality accommodation, equipment and materials, and a generous supply of highly qualified teachers, while rarely asking about comparative performance within the system. Yet if education is to be increasingly steered by frameworks and targets, it is the awareness of performance that is the key to raising standards (OECD 1995b: 104).

The result is that these overly regulated sectors of the Danish school system are, like Canada's, expensive without being particularly good. In contrast, the independent compulsory schools satisfy their students' families and are inexpensive to administer. The 67,000 students enrolled in Danish independent schools are served by only five administrators at the Ministry of Education, while many hundreds in the Ministry and hundreds more in municipalities around the country work to "front-load" the government-run schools (Traberg 1998).

Many of the outcomes of Danish schooling are difficult if not impossible to quantify. One can understand why some educators claim that no set of numbers could do justice to their labors. However, parents have a right to factual reports of student achievement and professional opinions of different schools, and the right to balance them against their own reactions to the schools' atmospheres, leadership, and pedagogical approaches.

A report on Danish schools would be useful for two reasons. It would give parents and students information, which they might use or reject, and it would provide schools with information about how they are serving their constituents. The facts would be unpalatable for those schools that fared poorly in the assessment but as experience in New Zealand has proven, public disclosure of the facts prompts otherwise unlikely improvements.20 Such a report would complete an accountable, diverse, and democratic system of education, which the Danish voucher system has already done much to initiate.

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