I’ve been in Asia for other reasons (looking into the education of gifted students), but while on the ground in Tokyo, I learned of a fascinating policy dispute that, in the U.S., would be even more controversial.
Compulsory education in Japan runs through ninth grade, but nearly everyone goes to, and graduates from, high school (twelfth grade). Admission to individual high schools, whether public or private, is competitive, and the competition is intense to get into the best and highest-status of them. (At the one I visited the other day, 90 percent of successful entrants had attended juku—cram school—for multiple years to prep for the school’s demanding three-part entrance exam. Yet only 160 of 1000 applicants made it across the threshold.)
Though private schools play a smallish role at the elementary and junior high levels, they’re a big deal for Japanese high school students. A remarkable 30 percent of pupils nationwide attend them, and in the sprawling Tokyo prefecture, it’s as many as 60 percent.
During the postwar years, total enrollments were soaring, and the government determined that encouraging private schools was a bargain. They absorbed a goodly share of the added students at a low price for taxpayers, because parents and other private sources covered most of the cost of facilities and operation.
Along the way, each prefecture negotiated with its private schools a division of the total enrollment such that they were assured a certain level of attendance and the public sector didn’t have to plan for more than a predictable share of the whole.
As enrollments have tipped downward, however—part of Japan’s current demographic crash—some private schools have had more difficulty attracting enough pupils. And they have an...