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Low-Cost Private Schools a Success for Developing World Families

Last week, the World Bank held a debate as part of the inaugural Africa Knowledge Fest, “Help or Hindrance: Are Low-Cost Private Schools Helping Achieve Quality Education For All in Africa?”. The discussion comes at an interesting time, with President Trump’s controversial pick for Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, narrowly confirmed by the Senate just weeks ago. During her confirmation, Democrats had desperately rallied against her support for school choice programs, as well as her wider belief in the ability of market forces to bring about low-cost, high quality education. But this notion that “private schools are only for the rich” is not limited to domestic politics. Various development experts and international aid organizations have long espoused a similar point. Given this disbelief, however, it is interesting to find that low-cost private schools are actually flourishing in some of the world’s most underdeveloped nations.

James Tooley’s groundbreaking research in his 2009 book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, goes a long way to explaining this phenomenon. As a researcher for the World Bank, Tooley was commissioned to study private education in developing countries, with the expectation that he would find very little. Instead, he unearthed an intricate network of privately run schools scattered across Africa and South Asia – unfamiliar to the many experts making decisions on the poor’s behalf. Educational entrepreneurs in the city slums and rural towns ran a variety of tailored community schools, which charged low-rates (as little as $1 per week) for those that could afford to pay, and provided scholarships for those who could not. Tooley’s continuing research has found that in such poor urban areas, the majority of schoolchildren were attending low-cost private schools. Even in Monrovia, Liberia, with slums that were not too long ago quarantined to prevent the spread of Ebola, 71 per cent of all children were attending private schools. Other studies, such as in Lagos, Nigeria, have found that there are four times more private schools than public. This is not just private education for the rich, but a spontaneous flourishing of educational markets for the very poorest.

Rather than confirming the conventional wisdom of those who insisted on government provision of education, Tooley found that the development ‘experts’ were rather out of touch. Poverty-stricken parents were choosing fee-charging private schools because they achieved much greater results than their government run counterparts. Tooley’s study in Hyderabad, India, for instance, showed that mean scores in mathematics were around 23 percent higher in private schools. Perhaps more importantly, this advantage was even more pronounced in English fluency, one of the most critical skills for economic mobility. It turns out that what the poor wanted wasn’t just free education, but quality education, and they were willing to scrape together the little they had to pay for it.

As these poor families understood, the key difference between the success of public and private schools is the structure of incentives. State schools lacked accountability to student success, and therefore had little incentive to deliver a quality education. This problem is indeed well documented, if not underestimated. In Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) in India, he notes that “In private school, the teachers are accountable to the manager (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children)”, while on the other hand, “In a government school, the chain of accountability is much weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance.” While development experts believed that children needed spacious classrooms, new playgrounds, and crisp uniforms, what parents and students truly desired were teachers that cared and effectively educated. This requires incentives, and planning education from the top down misses this point entirely.

While accountability fosters a broad, competitive market that responds to demand, removing accountability does the opposite. The PROBE report found that in the public schools surveyed, teacher negligence was rife. Surveyed schools often found teachers who were drunk, sleeping, or making children conduct domestic chores. Half of such sampled schools showed no teaching activity whatsoever. In more recent studies, Sierra Leone found their state payroll included 6,000 “ghost” teachers, nearly a fifth of the total number; while a survey in Pakistan found that over 8,000 state schools did not actually exist. Private schools had to be accountable to student success. Union-dominated government schools, on the other hand, did not. Having to attract rather than assume business makes private educators more responsive to students’ needs.

Third world entrepreneurs have shown that education is like any other good or service: it responds to incentives. When parents have the power to choose and control their own money, schools will respond by competing with each other for their business. This profit motive is not something to disparage – it is a rather remarkable thing. The most experienced and qualified technocrats, equipped with millions of dollars in aid, have failed to create schools that provide high quality education at a low cost. But inspired entrepreneurs have fostered a marketplace that is accountable to student satisfaction and success. Enabled with the freedom to compete with one another, to utilize local knowledge, and with less government regulation, these entrepreneurs have achieved a truly remarkable outcome: affordable private schools that are helping the poor.

If the world’s very poorest are fleeing public education for more accountable, tailored private schools with empirically greater outcomes, then maybe it is time that we rethink the role of government in education. Quality private schools no longer have to be privileges of the rich. Empowering parents and allowing schools to compete has been shown to work for even the most desperately poor. Proponents of school choice have long understood this, whether in New York or Nairobi, and it is finally looking to take off in America.