Providence Journal (Providence, RI), December 11, 2009
While there have been global economic and environmental summits for a number of years, mid-November brought the first international education summit, which was organized here.
Some may wonder why an event designed to spur education innovation worldwide would be held in the small Persian Gulf nation. It turns out, however, that Qatar, mostly known for its natural-gas production, has also promoted visionary education policies, including a planned universal school-choice voucher program.
Officially titled the World Innovation Summit for Education, the gathering is sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, which is under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bini Nasser al-Missned, wife of the ruling emir and a passionate education advocate. In her opening remarks at the summit, Her Highness advised that, “Innovation should be at the heart of education, which is the force which exerts human energy and guides it wisely for the purpose of expanding human intelligence and creativity to serve the objective of just and equitable human societies.”
Indeed, Qatar, which is generally regarded as having the highest-quality education system in the Arab world, has much to teach the world when it comes to innovation and empowering parents and their children.
Qatar’s voucher program, which is just being implemented this year, is part of the country’s comprehensive reform effort called “Education for a New Era.” The voucher amount will be equivalent to the per-pupil funding allotment for government-run schools. It is envisioned that this amount will pay for the majority of private-school fees, with parents paying the rest. Initially, the number of private schools will be limited, but over time that number should increase until the system is universal, with vouchers available to all Qatari parents.
“Parents will have options to select a school of their choice that suits the needs of their children,” says Adel al-Sayed, a top-ranking official at the Supreme Education Council (SEC), Qatar’s national education agency. The voucher program was adopted because it meets the principles that the SEC says inform Qatar’s education policies: schools should be autonomous, schools should be held accountable for student learning, and parents should exercise increasing levels of choice in selecting the best school for their children from a growing number of alternatives.
Private schools will be allowed into the program and will be eligible to receive the vouchers if they use either an accredited international curriculum or Qatar’s national curriculum, and if they agree to teach certain subjects such as Arabic language and Qatari history. Education officials believe that significant numbers of private schools based abroad will locate to Qatar in response to the voucher program.
Internationally, Qatar is not alone when it comes to giving parents the opportunity to choose between public and private schooling options. Speaking at one of the Doha summit’s seminars, Vivian Stewart, vice president of the Asia Society, observed that while in the past a school in San Francisco would have compared itself to a school in Seattle, it will now have to compare itself to schools in Shanghai and Stockholm.
In fact, Sweden also has one of the most revolutionary school-choice systems. Under the Swedish program, funding follows a child to whichever school he or she attends. This voucher lets parents choose the public or private school that they feel best meets the needs of their children.
The voucher, which is equivalent to the per-pupil funding allotted to local government schools, is available equally to all parents regardless of income. Swedish researchers have found that the program has spurred broad improvements in student achievement, which is a major reason why the program is popular among parents.
In her speech to the summit, Prof. Sheikha Abdull al-Misnad, president of Qatar University, observed that “the best advocates of education are the parents.” If parents are the best advocates, then they should also be given the decision-making authority that is the natural and logical consequence of that advocacy expertise. Qatar, Sweden and an increasing number of countries are doing just that through programs such as school-choice vouchers. That is a lesson that America would be well advised to learn.