Report: Turkey's Educational System and A Reform Proposal for a Free Society

Education Voucher: A Policy Offer for the Eastern and Southeastern Turkey

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Buğra Kalkan, İzmir Katip Celebi University



There is a significant relation between education and income inequality. This is a valid empirical fact not just for underdeveloped countries but also for developed countries. However, because of the intense material capital deficiency in underdeveloped countries, the social capital cannot be exploited adequately or developed compared to the developed countries. Both the difficulties to reach qualified education and the unaffordable high opportunity cost of the long term education for the low-income families lead to intergenerational obstinate income inequalities.

The children of low-income families in developed countries, with robust market economy institutions that create wealth, have more chance to improve their educational level and income in comparison to the children of low-income families in underdeveloped countries, without such kind of robust market economy institutions. The low wages that are related to the low marginal efficiency of the labor have been felt more within the context of unskilled labor, and have contributed to the durability of the intergenerational income inequalities.

Although low labor efficiency is related to the education level, it is important to notice that the public spending on education, especially in the underdeveloped countries, is also ineffective. Despite the public education from primary education to college education, the differences between various income levels concerning educational quality badly affects the future of the children from the low-income families in developing countries.

Although there are complex systemic reasons that induce intergenerational income inequalities, the classical solution to this problem is the social welfare politics that redistribute the income. Various welfare policies are also used to overcome this problem in developing countries. For instance, Conditional Cash Transfer is a safety net program that initiated in 2001 by World Bank, aims to break the intergenerational income inequality in various developing countries. The program divided into three categories as education, healthcare and gestation provides cash transfer on condition that the members of the low-income families to fulfill certain deeds. Cash transfers demands families to send their children to schools; to have their children’s healthcare check; and mothers to see the doctor during their pregnancy on regular basis.  Three fourths of the cash transfer is allocated to the education.

Conditional cash transfer aims to change the consumption patterns of the poor families. Although the program has reached many families and used a great amount of money in countries where the program has been carried out, it is not difficult to anticipate or determine that the effects of the program are/would be very limited. Especially the results of the efforts concerning education are convicted to be ineffective because of the low-quality public schools, low educational level of poor parents and low future expectations of the children from poor families. Trying to change the motivations of the families is a sound idea, but the program is depended on wrong assumptions on consumption patterns. Because the motivations related to the income are based on much more complicated socio-economic reasons.

The solutions of the similar problems are not limited to distributional policies run in developed countries, but institutional changes regarding supporting the low-income families are also being carried out. Providing more effective public service with the market-based solutions within the context of public management increases the quality and effectivity of public services in favor of the low-income groups. Education voucher applied in many developed democracies across the world is a salient sample for the solutions of the problems that occur within the context of income inequalities and education.  

I am going to contribute to the problem conjured up by CCT by offering an institutional change concerning education system. It is not claimed here that educational voucher would be the panacea of all the educational problems but it is asserted that the educational voucher could be more efficient and cheaper than the CCT of CCT-like programs. The basic idea of the educational voucher program is not the redistribution of the income but increasing the quality of education by introducing choice and competition to the education system. It aims to use the public financial resources more efficiently in favor of the students, especially the poor ones. So educational voucher programs try to provide opportunity equality rather than simply redistribute the income. It is asserted that better educational opportunities are stronger motivations for the poor students than making them to attend low quality public schools. Educational voucher is a way to provide public education with market-based solution. To prove the point of the paper, at first it is essential to explain the educational voucher. 

1. Educational Voucher System

An intense debate on the role of government concerning education system has started after the publication of Milton Friedman’s paper, “The Role of the Government in Education” in 1955. In his paper Friedman asserted that the finance and organization of the primary and secondary public education should be separated from each other and the organization should be handled by the private educational institutions in a free market economy while the government covers the expenses of the education. Friedman thinks that the necessity of public finance of the primary and second education would not enough to justify the public organization of the education system. He also argues that abolishing the public organization of the education system would be beneficial for the public interest and the quality of education. Friedman has two reasons, one is normative and the other is utilitarian, to back up his offer. He believes that parents have the right to have more control and choice over the education of their children. First of all limiting the school choice by the neighbor of the parents and excluding them from the management of the schools can be seen as violations of the rights of the parents. Secondly, organizing education system by public bureaucracy totally excludes the competition in education system. Friedman argues that the lack of competition in education system gives rise to the elimination of both the motivations that would otherwise increase the quality of the education and the innovative approaches in educational management.    

Friedman’s offer is turned into a provocative education reform phenomenon across the world. Educational voucher programs have been applied in various Eastern Europe countries and other countries all over the world like Chili, Colombia, India, Sweden, and Norway in addition to the states of US. Educational voucher is open to all students in some countries (Sweden, Chili, Netherland) but it is an opportunity only for the low-income failing students in some other countries and states of US (Washington D.C., Florida, Milwaukee, Cleveland). Beside the different kinds of school choice programs, there are also charter schools programs in US. 

Educational voucher is a grant provided by government that is paid to parents for the whole or a part of the coverage of the private school fees. Although it has various implementations in different countries educational vouchers depends on the principle of competing private schools that would try to attract students. Private education institutions that would like to join the system need to meet the conditions of the regulatory governmental organization. Determining a standard curriculum by the regulatory organization, which is responsible for the educational voucher program, and leaving the management, recruiting, educational methods to the private organizations is a prevalent practice in the education voucher system. Private schools are free to choose its employees and determine the wages policy. Although profit is a common motivation for the private schools, faith-based private schools are also seen frequently in the education voucher system, for instance in Easter Europe and Netherland. Beside the faith-based schools there are also philanthropic private schools try to help the students who need special treatment. But it is a statistical fact that the private schools joined to the voucher program are generally motivated by profit. The basic reason for that is the fact that profit motivation facilitates to organize. Governmental organization responsible for the voucher system generally restricts the profit margin by forbidding charging extra fees. Furthermore, private schools cannot discriminate the students with any kind of justification. Every parent who have got education voucher have the right to send their children to any private school in the system. (Lottery is a common practice when the demand is higher than the supply.) Beside the profit motivation restricted by these conditions, private schools are free to compete with each other to attract students by providing them better services and education quality. 

Criticism against educational voucher system usually stems from teacher unions and political groups that oppose to free market economy. It is possible to summarize these criticisms in three categories. First one claims that educational vouchers restrict the resources saved for the public schools. Second claims that education is not a public service that can be organized by profit motivation and therefore voucher system will fail to fulfill its goals. Especially the unions are worried about the teachers’ wages and their employee personal rights. Third claims that educational voucher would increase the discrimination within the context of socio-economic and ethnic differences or the pupils who needs special attention.

In contrast with these criticisms, as one might guess, the biggest support to educational vouchers has come from the low-income families and entrepreneur educators. Especially African-Americans give high support to educational vouchers in US. We have a data repository that facilitates us to evaluate all the criticisms. It is easy to compare the theoretical assumptions with the real world practices due to the school choice practices applied after 1990’s. So we will begin with examining different educational voucher programs of different countries to control the assumptions and criticisms mentioned previous pages. 

I will begin with Swedish example. Sweden is not the country where educational voucher applied most commonly but it is the country where joining to the educational voucher system is the easiest and the voucher program grows very fast. Furthermore it is an important fact that the social democrat governments in Sweden which is a welfare state has continued to support education voucher. After explaining the example of Sweden, the different examples of the school choice as education voucher and charter schools applied in US will be examined and the debates on voucher system will be cited. Then the applications and the debates in Chili and Colombia will be examined briefly. The overall debate will be deepened by discussing the meaning of the school choice and how to adapt it in Turkey.  

1.1. Sweden

Since 1990 in Sweden the organization of the primary and the secondary education has transferred to the local governments with its financial responsibility to decentralize the system. The decentralization of the education system was the plan of the social democrat government but the rightist government that had taken the power after the social democrats has deepened the reform by starting the “choice” period in the system. The education voucher system has been started without making any discrimination among any income groups to embrace all the students. Moreover Swedish government led every entrepreneur that meet the requirements of National Education Agency, established to regulate and supervise the education voucher system, open private education institution, so the government has done a serious reform. The private education institutions in Sweden can collect vouchers, calculated by average cost of per student, from local governments. The private schools neither can demand extra fees nor discriminate students on the base of socio-economic differences.

It can be thought that education voucher in Sweden would increase the quality of the education in two ways. The first one is the expectation that private schools will provide better education than municipal schools through competition. Secondly, the municipal schools that are in competition with the independent schools will be more motivated to increase their performance.

GPA (Grade Point Average, a national exam to grade secondary school students) is a good way to understand the performance of the different types of the schools in Sweden. According to the GPA the independent schools that are not a part of the voucher program, established before 1992, are the most successful schools in Sweden. Independent schools established after 1992 that are part of the voucher program takes the second place. And municipal schools take the third place. According to a survey carried by Tegle in 2010, 10 percent increase in the number of the independent schools induces an average of two percent increase in the grade of the municipal schools students. Average increase in the grade of a student who enrolled in an independent school is twenty one percent. But no increase is detected concerning municipal schools that are not faced with competition with independent schools. It is also important to state that low-income students, including immigrant, make use of the system most.  

1.1.  United States of America

The school choice in US has been carried out in two ways: charter schools and education voucher. Charter schools are public schools that financed by the government but these schools receive fund by the number of the students who choose to enroll to that school. Students have right to choose charter schools that are outside of their neighborhood. 16 independent surveys were made on the performance of the charter schools since 2010 and 15 out of 16 of these surveys indicated that charter schools have better performance than the traditional schools in US. Furthermore charter schools provide extra educational opportunities for the African-Americans and English learners. It is also interesting that charter schools use less governmental resources than traditional public schools. Similar surveys on education voucher programs in US are also available. Six surveys indicates that educational voucher programs not only good for the students who get the grants but also good for all the students in the education system in the district. Three surveys claims that it is only good for the students who get the education voucher. And only one study asserts that education vouchers have no impact on the students. Educational voucher programs also generally cherish by the African-Americans and low-income families in US.

2. Education Voucher in Developing Countries

Contrary to general belief private schooling is a widespread phenomenon in some developing countries, especially in India and Africa. And countries such as India, Chili, Colombia and Bangladesh have adapted various kinds of education voucher programs in different educational levels. Chili is one of these countries where education voucher is adapted in a very large range. Comparisons between subsidized private schools and municipal schools determine great advantages of the voucher program. But inadequate competition between different kinds of schools, some organizational problems and various financial motivation problems concerning the school managements cause inefficiencies in the system. Colombia might be a better example for the education voucher program in developing countries. Purpose specific education voucher program serves only for the low income families in Colombia. The program increases the graduation rates and test scores of the students in Colombia.   

3. A Reform Proposal for the Primary and Secondary Education in Turkey

Although Justice and Development Party governments have done a lot of market-based reforms on specifics social and political problems, the system and the organization of the national education stayed almost in the same way as it is. The Turkish education system is characterized by lack of competition among schools and teachers but the competition is so harsh among students who try to have the right to enroll a better secondary school. To be assigned in a good school students have to get good scores in the national exam. Students who have educated and relatively rich parents have obvious advantages over the other students. This mechanism creates a kind of hierarchical arrangement among students according to their socio-economic background. Eighty percent of the graduates of better schools are coming from families whose income level is over the Turkish average. These conditions of the education system create a cycle that supports the intergenerational income inequality in Turkey. If we consider that the one of most important purpose of the public education is the prevention of the several kinds of inequalities among different social groups, it is obvious that there is a governmental failure in education system.        

Turkish education system is constructed to allocate its best schools and teachers to its best students instead of trying to increase the performance of failing schools. Students feel great pressure on themselves to study hard and to be successful but there is no specific pressure on public schools and civil servants to improve the performance of the public schools.

Beside the huge gap between the education performances of different social groups, enrollment rates are so low in eastern and south eastern Turkey in comparison with the western parts of Turkey. This is not an unexpected fact. Because students do not expect to continue to their college education or to find a job after the graduation of upper secondary education, students and their families are not motivated for the upper secondary education. Unfortunately this fact has stronger effects on school girls. Especially the girls from religious families have some special problems to get over with, but public schools are not responsive to the needs of these girls.    

PISA scores of Turkey also verify our arguments above. The average score of the OECD countries in mathematics is 494 while Turkey’s average score is 448. But this picture gets worse when we consider the differences between various regions of Turkey. Average math score of Western Marmara Region is 479. Aegean Region and the western and middle Anatolia follow closely the Western Marmara. But eastern and south eastern Anatolia’s average math score is 396. According to some reports even if we exclude the socio-economic status effect from these scores, the gap between these regions will be 43 points. This gap corresponds to one year education. To have a more productive society it is important to reallocate the resources and reorganize the education system to improve the performance of the failing students and schools.

To accept the government failure in education system can lead us reforming the system by adopting the education voucher in Turkey. Education voucher primarily can be adapted to the regions where education performance is the lowest, such as eastern and south eastern of Turkey. The adaptations that would successfully work could be antecedents for the other regions of Turkey. Current government has started two programs to support and encourage private schooling in 2013. But these programs do not have a systematic view to reform the education system to make it more competitive. The first program aims to support successful students who do not have adequate financial resources to enroll in private primary or secondary educational institutions. Although this program is focused on low income families its scope is so narrow (only 180.637 students got their grants to enroll in a private school). And failing students and schools are not a concern of this program. Second program is more promising within the context of supporting private schooling. Within the scope of this program government grants TL 5000 to the students who would like to enroll in a private vocational high school. Although the program is so new the results are impressive. The numbers of the private vocational high schools increase fourfold in one year and continue to increasing. And the surprising fact about this program is the average cost of a student who enrolls in a public vocational school and the cost of a student who enrolls to a private vocational school is almost the same. For sure we need to wait to see the results after the graduation of the students from private vocational schools. In addition to these facts private schooling in Turkey increases % 196 in last eleven years. But these numbers are not impressive considering the dominance of public schooling in education system.

Private schooling is not necessarily expensive. Especially the private schools in eastern and south eastern Turkey show that middle income families can afford to send their children to private schools instead of sending their children to failing schools in these regions. The modest private schools’ (both primary and secondary) fees are twice of the average cost of a public school student. (Average cost of a public primary school student is TL 2.403 and lowest private primary school fee is TL 5625.) The gap between costs and the fees are not so high and can be closed by competition and some other public policies, such as tax reduction policies and stimulation of private donations.

Our basic reform proposal is to encourage the private schools that are totally financed by the education voucher to increase the performance of the failing students. Parents will have a choice over the schools in which their children will enroll and they will have a right to speak on the organization and the curriculum of the schools. So the competitive pressures will be distributed among the schools, teachers and students. And the success of the schools will depend on the performance of the students from low income families. Of course National Education Ministry will limit itself only to determine and audit the basic standards of the education quality. Apart from that private schools will be free to organize and manage their stuff and students. We believe that private schools in eastern and south eastern regions will be forced to develop special programs to increase the performance of the students and solve the region-specific problems to attract the students. Otherwise the standard public education policy and bureaucratic educational organization is going to continue to fail to solve the problems of failing students.



Atilla Yayla, Eğitim sisteminde reform mu devrim mi?, Yeni Şafak Gazetesi, 03.01.2015

Ufuk Coşkun, Eleştiriye ve yeniliğe açık bir eğitim teşkilatımız var, Milat Gazetesi, 05.01.2015

"Yeni Türkiye'nin Yeni Eğitim Anlayışı, Hasan Yücel Başdemir, Açık Görüş, Star Gazetesi, 11.01.2015



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