Voice & Choice

From Ed•sy•clopedia

Voice and choice is a relationship in the RISE Systems Framework. It constitutes a “column” in the framework, as shaded below in yellow.

The 5 design elements and 4 relationships of accountability in education systems
Politics Compact Management Voice & Choice
Delegation Delegation in Politics Delegation in Compact Delegation in Management Delegation in Voice & Choice
Information Information in Compact Information in Management Information in Voice & Choice
Finance Finance in Compact Finance in Management
Support Support in Compact Support in Management
Motivation Motivation in Compact Teacher motivation


Voice and choice jointly describe one of the four accountability relationships in the RISE accountability framework. The relationship focuses on the “short route of accountability” (WDR 2004),[1] wherein families and the community (acting as principals) can directly hold local schools and teachers (acting as agents) accountable for the kind of education they provide. Voice and choice are the two main mechanisms through which this accountability relationship is enacted.

In the classic formulation by Albert Hirschman (1970), voice and choice are potent tools to improve the quality of organizations. When an organization - such as a school - starts to deteriorate, its members have two possible options: stay and use whatever leverage they have to improve the organization (voice), or exit and join an alternative organization (choice). Voice is exercised with the intent of pressuring school management and bringing about change.[2] A familiar example of voice in education would be an active school committee with parent or community representatives. In contrast, individuals often exercise school choice without meaning to catalyze reform, but the cumulative impact of mass exit serves as a powerful signal to a school that it needs to change. A common example of choice in education would be a dissatisfied parent pulling their child out of a government school and enrolling her in a private school instead. In this way both voice and choice act as mechanisms to hold schools accountable to the families and community they serve.

Case Study: The Interplay Between Voice and Choice in the Typical Failing Public School

Hirschman (1970) offers a valuable characterization of how choice and voice interact in a prototypical failing public school. As the quality of a public school goes down, quality-conscious families exit to the higher quality private sector (assuming this alterative exists). Voice is paralyzed by the loss of the most vocal, politically empowered segment of society that could serve as its main proponents. However, the government bureaucracies running public schools are not sensitive to exit, instead they are much more vulnerable to voice and public pressure. The feedback mechanism in both voice and choice is broken, and a low equilibrium persists where failing public schools resist reforming themselves.[2]

Hirschman’s stylized analysis offers at least two valuable insights about the operation of voice and choice. First, it is not necessarily better to strengthen both voice and choice to improve an organization. Instead, the optimal mix of voice and choice depends on what the organization is responsive to. In the case of public schools, “the organization is in effect equipped with a reaction mechanism to which it is not responsive" (122).[2] Following this view, corrective policies would either make public schools more responsive to exit, or would amplify voice in public schools (i.e. by getting parents to switch from exit to voice).

More generally, the case study shows that voice and choice do not operate independently, but instead trade-off against each other. The likelihood of developing and exercising voice is reduced by exit. At the same time, voice is strengthened by the credible threat of exit. To maximize voice, exit should not be an easy alternative, but should still be possible.

Voice and Choice in both Public and Private Schools

Voice is not the exclusive mechanism of bottom-up accountability in public schools. Similarly, choice is not exclusively the province of private schools. Instead, voice and choice are key features of both public and private education systems.

To give just a few examples:

  • Students often choose between public schools, particularly in secondary school. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a 2018 school zoning policy for high-quality public junior secondary schools shifted admissions criteria from being largely determined by test scores to being largely determined by distance-to-school. This had tremendous overall impacts on who was enrolled: students in the lowest scoring decile (who were also relatively poorer) were more than 8 times more likely to get into public junior secondary schools after the reform.
  • Providing reports cards to parents in Pakistan on the performance of all schools in their village raised test scores in both public and private schools, but disproportionately in the lowest-quality private schools. These impacts persisted 8 years later, but the mechanism was not exit: there was little school or student churn. Instead, the study provides support for voice – strengthened by the threat of exit - as the mechanism of improvement. Parental engagement increased dramatically in the lowest quality private schools that improved the most, and less but also significantly in public schools.
  • [More examples]


Andrabi, Tahir, Jishnu Das, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja. 2017. “Report Cards: The Impact of Providing School and Child Test Scores on Educational Markets.” American Economic Review 107 (6): 1535–63. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.20140774. Berkhout, Emilie, and Florischa Tresnatri. 2020. “How Indonesia Attempts to Address Inequity in Access to Quality Education: The Case of Junior Secondary Schools in Yogyakarta.” RISE Programme Blog (blog). September 7, 2020. https://riseprogramme.org/blog/indonesia-equity-access-quality-education.

[Jishnu Das RISE conference presentation 2019]

  1. World Bank. 2003. World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. The World Bank. https://doi.org/10.1596/0-8213-5468-X
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.