Posts by Sharky

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Student Vouchers

Continuing the topic on Lithuania’s educational reforms from my last post, I will take a more detailed look at the student voucher policy for financing education in Lithuania. But first, some background on how the concept originated, what student vouchers are, and what are the pros and cons of the student voucher policy.

History

The origins of the student voucher idea can be traced back to 1792, when Thomas Paine, a British economist, proposed a “voucher scheme” – a special allowance of 4 pounds per year for each child up to the age of 14 – in order to finance education. The first education financing policy that most closely resembled student vouchers was implemented in the state of Vermont, in 1869. This policy allocated funding for rural families who wanted to send their kids to schools in other regions, essentially giving them school choice; a similar policy was adopted in Maine soon after, in 1873. Finally, the first one to define and describe the modern concept of student vouchers in detail was the American economist Milton Friedman, in his article on “The Role of Government in Education” in 1955. Even though the US is the biggest proponent of free market principles, and even though it has the two oldest student voucher policies in VT and MA, the policy is not widely implemented throughout the country today, with only 12 states employing a partial student voucher policy.

Concept

Despite the different definitions and implementations of student vouchers, the basic common premises behind the concept are the following:

  1. School choice – allowing parents, as the “true customers of the service of education”, to choose freely to which school to send their children.
  2. Competition between schools – introducing more effective implementation of funds, improving the quality of education, and creating a wider variety of educational options.
  3. Higher degree of parental involvement – increasing the personal interest of parents in the educational process and making them more responsible for their children.
  4. Better access to education for underprivileged and special-needs families.

The first two premises are highly influenced by free market principles, extending competition and efficiency to the realm of education. However, there are many criticisms of using economically based market principles in education, leading to controversy and debate.

Pros and Cons

The debate on student vouchers as an educational financing policy can be summarized in the list of pros and cons below.

Pros Cons
More effective allocation of funds in schools due to competition In the long term, only the popular schools benefit, while the least popular ones incur higher costs
Increased transparency of educational financing, due to the elimination of individualized subsidies and the need for lobbying Due to the need to attract as many students to a school, administrators and teachers are more willing to “give more slack” to underperforming students or even create fictitious students to maintain funding
Increased quality of education due to competition The intended increase of quality of education due to competition might backfire, especially when the options of schools to choose from are limited
Emergence of private schools and the ability of public schools to learn better practices from the private sector Underprivileged or special needs students might still not be able to choose better private schools due to their entrance requirements
Increased variety of schools in terms of informal education options Higher curricular freedom of private schools might undermine the national educational goals and strategies
School choice Increased social inequality
Increased response of school administrators to the needs and wishes of students and parents Any fluctuations in student numbers and, hence, funding, creates a feeling of instability and employment uncertainty for teachers
Higher parental involvement in the educational process of their children

Lithuania

The student voucher educational reform was introduced in Lithuania starting 2001, with a voucher of 1521 LTL (~570 USD) per student. This amount has more than doubled to 3800 LTL (~1430 USD) for the 2012-2013 school year; however, this does not reflect the dramatic decrease in the numbers of students in schools in the emigration-age of post-global-financial crisis and free migration within the EU.

The effects of the student voucher policy in Lithuania are seen to be more negative, or insignificant, than positive. The main critics of the policy are teachers and teachers unions, who experience chaotic and unstable working conditions with the decline in student numbers, especially in rural areas. In small towns and villages, there are not enough schools that could benefit from competition, causing the disappearance of small schools and firing of teachers.

Moreover, the actual distribution of student voucher funds is questioned, as school administrators use the funds not for professional teacher training, but for general expenses, such as remodeling facilities or paying utilities. The current main allocation of student voucher funds – 95% for teacher salaries – is also questioned, with some political attitudes to completely abolish the student voucher policy.

All in all, it is very important to consider the specific context of a country when trying to implement such policies as student vouchers. It is reassuring that the policymakers of Lithuania are aware of all the pros and cons of student vouchers and that a critical debate on the issue is present.

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Restructuring of Schools

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As I am about to graduate from a private American university, I wanted to reflect on my motivations for coming to the US to study, in the first place. Five years ago when I moved here from Lithuania, I was seeking quality higher education and personal growth through immersing myself into the American college experience. Five years ago, I was running away from what I perceived to be a chaotic and uncertain situation in Lithuania’s educational system.

In the post-soviet period (starting in 1991), the Lithuanian educational system – along with most other spheres of life in the country – began long and fundamental reforms to reorient the country away from the failing Soviet ideas of communism to the Western ideas of democracy and capitalism. The most obvious western influences were coming from Lithuania’s desire to join the European Union (EU), which required Lithuania to fulfill specific European standards in healthcare, human rights, and economy, among other requirements. Most of the reforms, including the ones in the educational system, were directly related to these requirements. In retrospect, as a student who emigrated from Lithuania, I cannot help but wonder whether my country is just jumping from one ideological system – the communist one – to a new one – the neoliberal system – while constantly being influenced by some greater world powers. In my blogs, I will take a closer look at some of the educational reforms in newly independent Lithuania ranging from school restructuring and school financing through student vouchers to anti-LGBT amendments to the “Law on the Protection of Minors.”

I will start by reflecting on the chaos of the educational reforms that were referred to as “restructuring”.

Because I was born only a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was basically part of the first generation of students to go through the educational system of newly independent Lithuania. I would always hear comparisons from my sister – who is twelve years older than me and went through the educational system of Soviet Lithuania – about how she used to receive grades on a 5-point scale instead of the newly established 10-point scale, or how everyone had to learn Russian as their one mandatory foreign language.

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Russian was not even available in the schools that I attended and English has been my foreign language since first grade. It is hard for me to make comparisons of specific curricular or organizational details based only on the stories of others who experienced the Soviet educational system, yet I can still recall the great fuss of school restructuring through personal experience. These “restructuring” reforms were happening right before Lithuania finally joined the EU in 2004. In the case of my sister’s school, the official restructuring from a Soviet educational system to a Lithuanian one occurred at the start of the 1998 school year, which was my sister’s last year of school: back in the Soviet system, this would have been her 11th year, but with the new educational structure she was among the cohort that had to complete a newly added 12th year. So from the Soviet educational system of 11 grades Lithuania transitioned to the system of 12 grades – more similar to western models.

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I later attended this same school that was being restructured once again: from being a middle school (serving grades 5 through 8) it suddenly turned into a “general” school (serving grades 1 through 10) and even switched facilities with a different school – all of this in 2002. This whole new type of “general” schools was supposed to serve the students who wished to complete only the 10 mandatory years of education in Lithuania. The duration and definition of “primary”, “middle”, and “high” schools were also shifted around, in addition to the establishment of such new categories of schools as “general” schools or “gymnasiums.” In the near future, these “general” schools will be restructured yet again into “pro-gymnasiums.” I know – confusing! All sorts of complicated and chaotic things were changing that I did not understand (or care for) at the time, but all the moving of classrooms, students, and teachers was quite unsettling and discomforting for a student that should only be focusing on doing well in school. All of this was part of great educational reforms to establish a western Lithuanian educational system that have not stopped ever since.

Currently, many teachers, teacher union activists, and school administrators are disheartened by the unending reforms. Shortly after the economic upswing of having joined the EU, the problems of the educational reforms have been brought back up by the lingering effects of the global economic crisis. Teachers are being fired as student numbers dwindle, schools are being closed or merged (especially in rural areas), and administrators are fighting for funding in the shape of student vouchers. The neoliberal educational policies of Lithuania’s ministry of Science and Education that are introducing competition through “increased financial independence,” decentralized management of school funds, and freedom of school choice are causing chaos in the education system.

Perhaps competition in the spirit of neoliberalism is not very helpful in such a vital field of human life as education. Perhaps it is disruptive and discomforting for students to constantly have to adapt to new educational policies: after all, any educator knows that students need safe and stable environments to grow, develop, and learn. Perhaps that is why some Lithuanians silently and melancholically remember the stability of the Soviet era where everything – not just education – was much more certain and unchangeable, albeit it was also imposed on them against their will… Now, at least, there is freedom to discuss and debate education policies and choices. Similarly, the joy of their students’ achievements and the responsibility for any problems, too, are all dependent on what direction Lithuania decides to develop. The question is whether the global neoliberal experiment in education is the right direction for Lithuania.