AS interest in school choice continues to build in the United States, the Netherlands' 85-year-old system of free public and private schooling offers some insight into the long-term effects of educational choice.
By provision of their constitution, Dutch parents can send their children to either public schools or private religious schools. And all these schools are equally subsidized by the government.
Several times a year, schools throughout the Netherlands advertise their services to the public. Newspapers carry ads, and schools distribute colorful brochures.
Principals shine up their school premises and invite the parents of prospective students in for tours. "We have evening and Saturday visits when we have only friendly teachers in the schools," jokes Fred de Zoete, principal of the public Louise de Coligny School in Leiden.
Most parents are looking for a school whose teachers and administrators have similar values and religious beliefs. "There's no big difference between schools," Mr. de Zoete says. "The biggest difference is the image that the parents have of the school. They may think that because there is a higher percentage of ethnic minorities here that the education level is lower."
As the immigrant population in the Netherlands has grown, many Dutch parents have begun to segregate their children from immigrant students.
Louise de Coligny had almost no ethnic minorities a decade ago. Today, 20 percent of the students are from ethnic minorities. "This is not a problem for Dutch parents now," de Zoete says. "But if this percentage should increase, they will want to send their children to another school."
The Roman Catholic school next door has almost no minority children. "Out of 1,500 students about 10 are minorities," de Zoete says. He suspects that the administrators next door are steering ethnic minority students away from their school and encouraging them to apply instead at Louise de Coligny. "It's better for their image," de Zoete says of the Catholic school. As a public school, Louise de Coligny is obligated to admit any student who applies. Private schools have the option of rejecting students.
Since the majority of immigrants are flooding into the larger cities in Holland, schools in Amsterdam show even more evidence of segregation. Augustinus College was founded as a private school in the Bylmer section of Amsterdam nearly 15 years ago. At that time, the Bylmer was a newly planned region designed for middle-class residential housing.
"We started here as pioneers," says assistant headmaster Nicolette Schulman. "Within a few years, the whole idea collapsed. The immigrants came in, and the middle class moved out. It's really becoming a kind of ghetto."
Augustinus College is suffering because of the neighborhood's image. "As the area becomes worse, the school is considered worse," says Gerard Koster, an English teacher at the school. "Sometimes we feel we are fighting a losing battle."
In the past few years, the school's enrollment has dropped from 1,200 students to 760. The remaining students represent more than 30 different ethnic groups. Only 15 percent are white, native-Dutch students.
"Now we have very few students in the highest levels," Ms. Schulman says. "We may have to close down that part of the school. But before that happens, we'd merge with other schools. It's like in business, you have to find partners."
The Dutch government is encouraging struggling schools throughout the country to merge into larger institutions. As the number of schools has continued to climb over the years, administrative costs and inefficiency have become a problem.
The growing multicultural character of society in the Netherlands is straining the nation's tradition of school choice and denominational education. Many private schools are breaking with their religious roots and accepting any student who applies, just as the public schools do.
"Not all of our students are Christian - lots of them are Muslim," Schulman says. "We're not really in a position to turn students down."
"White flight" from schools with increasing numbers of immigrant students is growing. "It's very hard to turn the tide," Schulman says. "Society as we see it around us does not want to mix."
Most Dutch educators value the advantages of a free-choice education system. But concerns about the consequences are increasing.
"If you have the competition, it's better for your school. You think more about your product," de Zoete says. "But it has to be honest competition."