In Spain, freedom of choice is at the center of the political debate on education. The PP took this week to the last plenary session of the legislature a motion to demand that the Government "explain" if its educational reform will guarantee "freedom of education". At new educational law project of the PSOE, whose processing will not be carried out by the electoral advance, the minister Isabel Celaá eliminated the article from the Lomce (current law approved by the PP in 2013) in which the call was recognized "social demand"That is, the right of parents to choose concerted education –sustained with public funds– for their children and the obligation of the administrations to offer as many places as requests.
Beyond the political confrontation, in Spain there is no debate that families can not choose a center, but what formula should be used to make compatible that right to choose with an equitable distribution of students, the consulted experts say. In the 2017-2018 academic year, there were 8.1 million students in Spain from Infant to Bachillerato. Of these, 67.3% enrolled in the public; 25.9% in the concerted and 6.9% in the private.
"The problem is that families do not choose the center they want, they discard the ones they do not want for their children, it's a dynamic of flight and not of choice," says Ismael Palacín, director of the Jaume Bofill Foundation, dedicated to educational research. According to several studies published by the foundation, families usually take into account the type of students in the center, and not so much the educational project or the teaching staff. Palacín believes that the solution is a "shock plan" that avoids the stigmatization of schools. An example is the Magnet project, that Catalonia has copied from the United States, in which centers with high school segregation are allied with research institutes and specialize in one area, for example, marine sciences. "It is a call to the neighbors to give an opportunity and send their children there," he explains.
School segregation affects 46.8% of Spanish schools, mainly public schools – nine out of ten – according to the study Magnitude of school segregation by socioeconomic level, published in 2018 by two researchers of the Autonomous University of Madrid.
"It is difficult to pass a regulation that prevents families from choosing, they are used to doing it in all aspects of their lives," says Agnès Van Zanten, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, who has studied segregation in that country. The choice introduces the dynamics of the market in education: schools compete to attract families, but in most cases, this competitiveness does not lead to better results for students, since instead of improving the academic program, the centers invest in better facilities, says the OECD. Meanwhile, in schools with greater school segregation, "teachers try to adapt to the level of the students and in the end they lower standards and de-motivate themselves", explains Van Zanten. The solution must come from local administrations because there is no single formula that solves the problem. "You need committees of schooling integrated by experts, each city has a situation."
The concert centers "are more selective" with the admission of students, as shown by the investigations of Van Zanten in cities such as Paris or Lyon. In Spain, there is an economic barrier, since many agreements charge fees to families, although there are no official data. At Study of prices of charter schools, published last October by the Circle of Educational Quality (CICAE), an association that groups 57 private schools, analyzed 147 charter schools of six autonomous communities that charge an average fee of 160 euros per month.
In 25 of the 36 OECD countries there are charter schools funded by public funds. At the head, the Netherlands (with 65% of students in the concerted), Belgium (60%), Ireland and Chile (50%), France (20%) and Spain (25%). On average, 85% are enrolled in public schools. In both the Netherlands and Belgium, measures have been approved to prevent school segregation. In the first one, more funding is given to the centers that admit students with fewer resources and in the second, the income has more weight in the admission processes.
Establishing maximum quotas of disadvantaged students per school is another possible solution, says Miguel Ángel Alegre, author of the study What works in education?, published by the Catalan Institute for the Evaluation of Public Policies. An example is the Basque Country, which in 2008 recommended to its centers, in a pioneering way in Spain, that foreign students not exceed 30% per classroom in primary and 20% in secondary.
Barcelona approved last week a package of measures that will oblige all public and subsidized centers of the city to reserve seats for students at risk of social exclusion, to ensure an equitable enrollment of students.
Elisa Vega has taken her four children to a concerted religious school in Valencia. It is part of the Yoelijo platform, which emerged in the Valencian Community in February to demand more places and funding for the concerted. "It's not about mixing students from rich and poor neighborhoods, but about giving each center the resources it needs." Ravaging children in their neighborhoods is not fair, "he says.
"Our recommendation for Spain is to introduce criteria in the admission processes that give more weight to the socioeconomic level of the students, so that those who have less have priority," says Beatriz Pont, educational policy analyst at the OECD. "A good education system has to ensure that any school you go to is of quality, that's what Finland has achieved, that the school next to your house is as good as the one that is 28 kilometers away." In Finland families do not choose, they are assigned based on the proximity to the school. He gives another example, that of Chile, where more funding is given to the centers with the greatest number of disadvantaged students. "It's the way to make these kids more attractive, the schools want more resources to, among other things, hire more teachers, that's where it worked."