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South Africa's unintended experiment in school choice: how the National Education Policy Act, the South Africa Schools Act and the Employment of Educators Act create the enabling conditions for quasi-markets in schools

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School choice is often identified with right-leaning, voucher-happy, market-oriented public school systems like those found in the United States. Thus, the proposition that a social democratic state such as South Africa will offer many primary and secondary school learners far greater choice strikes many as counter-intuitive and implausible. The authors demonstrate that the three major pieces of education framework legislation—National Education Policy Act (NEPA), South Africa Schools Act (SASA) and Employment of Educators Act (EEA)—conspire with recent historical events and deep political and constitutional commitments to create South Africa's unintended experiment in school choice. The authors emphasize that the legal framework created by legislation and regulation are necessary but not sufficient conditions—they prefer to call them enabling conditions—for the creation of quasi-markets in schools. The generation of quasi-markets in schools depends on several other factors required for all markets. The absence of many of these features in much of South Africa explains why the majority of South African learners do not have access to quasi-markets in schools. The absence of such features is largely a function of apartheid's legacy of deeply entrenched patterns of inequality in primary and secondary schooling. Having demonstrated that historical, political, legal and economic conditions had the unintended consequence of producing school choice—and that school choice was not the result of the state's adoption of a conscious and deliberate policy—the authors examine the state's response to this de facto policy. The authors remain agnostic as to the desirability of the de facto policy and conclude with an exploration of some of the primary critiques of choice in South Africa. While they dismiss the ‘political' critiques as largely facile, the available empirical evidence suggests the limited systemic benefits and the potentially deleterious consequences for the poorest of the poor who reside in areas where quasi-markets exist. The state's current ‘conscious' attempts to re-engineer a modest mixed model, that emphasizes access to existing quasi-markets—and thus exploits superior existing school stock for the benefit of learners from historically disadvantaged communities—and that shifts public resources to those schools in the greatest need, accords with what little we know about the advantages and disadvantages of choice.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Pretoria, South Africa 2: University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Publication date: 2006-03-01

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