School choice: Lessons from France

iStock_000010491807XSmallFrance has had more than 30 years’ experience with school choice. The Debre Act of 1959 made it possible to subcontract educational services to accredited private schools that elected to participate. Most politicians, educators and parents believe the policy has been successful in providing choice without increasing social stratification.

Despite some financial and political-accountability problems, France’s experience indicates that school-choice policies can be successful, at least in environments in which major equity problems do not exist. Although the circumstances behind the school choice movement are very different here in the U.S., Frances C. Fowler, Miami University/Oxford, Ohio, writes that there are lessons to be learned from France’s long experience.

Fowler analyzed school choice in France using primary-source material – documents written close to the time of the events. She studied texts of parliamentary debates, statistical, economic and demographic reports, as well as scholarly books and journals representing the full range of political opinion. In addition, she interviewed 16 French policy makers representing 13 organizations involved in the development of educational policy in both public and private schools.

Comparing France and the United States

Although France and the U.S. differ, they resemble each other in important ways. Both share the ideal of the “common school”, practice separation of church and state and traditionally have not subsidized private schools. Each has significant immigrant and minority populations along with the attendant socioeconomic inequalities.

However, there are important differences in their educational environments. In France, there are virtually no financial inequalities within the public school system because school finance is centralized at the national level and state funding includes a carefully controlled local contribution. Second, public schools are considered academically superior to private ones (both public and private school educators expressed this belief). Third, although the French criticize their system, they believe it is fundamentally sound and French students do reasonably well in international comparisons.

Historical context

France adopted school choice after World War II when private education (largely Catholic) was in a financial crisis. At the same time, the baby boom was putting great pressure on the public schools to provide adequate teachers and facilities and the political system was destabilized. Under the Debre Act, private schools were given the following options:

1. They could refuse aid and remain unregulated.

2. They could accept moderate aid (teacher salaries) and be moderately regulated.

3. They could accept more comprehensive aid (teacher salaries and operating expenses) and be heavily regulated.

4. They could choose to become public schools.

Regulation was substantial for all private schools accepting even partial aid. All schools with teachers under contract had to “accept students without distinction of origin, opinion or belief.” Also, in order to maintain the preeminence of public education, the policy restricted the growth and demand for private education by allowing only private schools that had been operating for at least five years to apply for contracts.

The curricula, teacher credentialing and evaluation of schools signing contracts were under the control of the government. However, Debre recognized the need for private schools to have enough autonomy to maintain their distinctive character. For this latter reason, administrators’ salaries were not paid. Private-school principals controlled the selection of their teachers and these teachers did not receive tenure.

France’s policy of school choice was begun for financial reasons; it was thought to be the most cost-effective way to educate the burgeoning population.

Today, the focus has changed. Now, the policy is seen as a way to give parents an affordable alternative to public school education. Parents can choose a private school if their child is not succeeding in the rigorous public system. Private schools in France offer more individualized attention and emotional support to students. In addition, many parents chose private schools to avoid public school reforms, such as coeducation, extension of the common school through 10th grade, and the elimination of ability grouping.


Unlike the proposals for school choice in America, the purpose of the French system was not to foster competition between private and public schools in order to improve public education. The percentage of children enrolled in private schools in France (16-17 percent) has remained virtually the same over the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, interviews with French policy makers revealed some disagreement over the effect of competition between public and private schools. Some educators report that because many private schools are less regulated than the public schools, they are freer to experiment and to develop innovations. Over time, some of these private-school innovations have been accepted by and become standard practice in the public schools.

The competition for good students in certain districts is so fierce that some public school leaders claim that it leads to grade inflation in private schools, in which students are, by necessity, “customers”. Parents, pleased by these inflated grades, believe their children are performing better than they would in public schools.

In all, evidence concerning the influence of competition between public and private schools in France is contradictory. Apparently, competition between schools does not function to improve education in the direct way that some Americans believe it will. Competition between French schools is complex and appears to produce mixed results.


Frances’ school choice program has not increased social stratification. One study showed that 32 percent of private school students came from modest economic backgrounds. The Debre Act did grant choice and better access to private schools for children from all backgrounds. Government subsidies enable private schools to keep tuition fees low.

Importantly, however, regulations in France make it difficult for subsidized private schools to offer more educational resources to students than public schools. Class sizes must be comparable. Teachers are required to have the same credentials and are paid on the same salary scale. All students in subsidized private schools take the national essay examinations on which public school students continue to outperform students in private schools.


An unforeseen effect of the Debre Act was the difficulty public officials had in planning and budgeting for education. It was impossible to know in advance how many schools and teachers would request subsidies for the following year. Reforms during the 1970’s temporarily reduced regulation of private schools, thus exacerbating financial accountability problems. Because class size in private schools was no longer controlled, schools hired as many teachers as they wanted and billed the government for their salaries.

By the mid-1980’s, more money was being spent on private than on public school students. With new regulations, the government has regained control over private-school expenses. Local governments, for example, are now required to make substantial contributions to private schools in their jurisdiction although they have no power to influence educational contracts.

Implications for American school-choice programs

France has demonstrated that it is possible to implement a successful school-choice plan. Fowler believes that for our own consumer-oriented society, school choice has powerful appeal and that widespread implementation of choice plans is inevitable. But, Fowler believes that the most daunting hurdle to implementing choice here will be to design a system that will ensure freedom, equity and efficiency.

Though France has successfully avoided problems of inequity or social stratification, a U.S. solution to these problems will be more difficult since many of our private schools are judged superior to public schools, and the public schools vary so greatly in resources and academic quality.

U.S. educators who are concerned about equity, in Fowler’s opinion, will need to fight for careful regulation of choice plans. They will need to insist on equal access for all children and the provision of transportation to make such access practical. Strong accountability and reporting measures will be necessary to judge the effects of choice plans here in the U.S.


“School Choice Policy in France: Success and Limitations”, Educational Policy, December 1992, Volume 6, Number 4, pp. 429-443.

Published in ERN March/April 1993, Volume 6, Number 2.


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