Public Ed Gets Schooled in Developing Countries

Luis Pablo de la Horra

Does this sound familiar? “Education is a basic pillar for any society. It is the bedrock upon which a country builds its present and future prosperity; therefore it is important that governments in developing countries provide free, basic education so that children do not fall behind due to lack of economic resources, thereby expanding opportunities to thrive and abandoning the vicious circle of poverty.”

For many people, this argument seems obvious, but there is an unjustifiable logical jump between the undeniably-true premises and the questionable conclusion.

Economic growth has been historically accompanied by increasing literacy rates long before compulsory education was introduced by the public sector. For instance, by the time free, public education was established in England in 1870,  the literacy rate was already greater than 70% thanks to philanthropy, Sunday schools, and private schools.

Some could argue, however, that this historical example cannot be extrapolated to our days. After all, government-provided education seems the only means whereby the lower classes in places like India or Nigeria can have access to quality education that enables new generations to reach higher standards of living than those endured by their parents. But is this so?

Private schools in low-income areas achieve higher results than government schools.

Empirical Evidence

The research conducted by James Tooley, professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle, shows that, contrary to what is widely believed, it is the private sector that is educating the poorest among the poor in developing countries.

In his book The Beautiful Tree, Tooley summarizes the research that has led him to the slums of cities in India, Nigeria, Ghana or Kenya to look into how low cost, for-profit private schools are filling the literacy gap in low-income countries. His findings are revealing.

First, Tooley shows that most children living in low-income areas of Hyderabad (India), Lagos (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), and Nairobi (Kenya) attend both recognized (that is, regulated by the government) or unrecognized private schools. One might be tempted to think that this is due to the lack of government schools where parents can send their children for free. Dead wrong.

Parents often choose fee-charging, private schools over public schools even though the latter are free of charge, and in some cases children receive lunch, uniforms, and books at no cost.

Why are low-income families willing to pay a fee for sending their children to private schools if free-of-charge, public schools are available in their neighborhoods? Several reasons. First, parents are concerned about teachers’ commitment in public schools. According to Tooley’s research, absenteeism and demotivation among teachers are common in government schools, which has a direct impact on the learning experience of children. In addition, private schools have lower pupil-teacher ratios and gender equity is usually maintained, meaning that private schools do not segregate based on gender.

Private School Affordability

What about those parents who can’t afford to send their children to private schools? First of all, it should be noted that fees are, in general, affordable for poor families. For instance, in the slum of Kibera, located in Nairobi, fees account for an average of 6.4% of the minimum income level. Nonetheless, local entrepreneurs who run these small, for-profit schools often offer scholarships to those families that, for any reason, cannot incur such a cost.

In terms of performance, Tooley’s findings are crystal-clear: overall, both recognized and unrecognized private schools in low-income areas achieve higher results than government schools.

These results, which control for socioeconomic factors and selection bias, suggest that parents’ inclination towards for-profit, private schools seems completely justified. Moreover, this superior performance is attainted at a fraction of the cost of public schools, which reveals that more resources do not always lead to better educational results.

Two main conclusions can be drawn from James Tooley’s work. First, his research suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, private education does not necessarily have to be aimed at middle and high classes. The targeting of high-income families by private schools in developed countries is just a matter of supply and demand. The de facto educational monopoly held by governments has historically shifted the demand for education to the public sector, forcing private schools to focus on a very specific segment of the population. Second, given the failure of publicly-funded education in these countries, governments should start supporting these private initiatives (e.g. via school vouchers) and recognize the role they play in educating the lower classes.

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