Paying for school on $2 a day

When James Tooley first discovered low-cost private schools for the poor in urban slums and rural areas in India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and China, aid agency officials and local government administrators did not receive the news warmly. Most flat out denied that such schools existed. Even if they do exist, said the experts, they can’t possibly be any good. School owners that run for-profit schools in shantytowns and poor villages are just exploiting poor communities. Their teachers are untrained and poorly paid. Their buildings are cramped, dark and filthy. Worst of all, kids don’t learn anything there—they come out “half-baked,” one education official told him.

But what Tooley found, in four years of site visits and a five-country study described in his book The Beautiful Tree, throws a wrench in this familiar-sounding reasoning. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of students in the impoverished areas he studied were in fact attending these allegedly nonexistent schools, even when public options were available.

Why on earth would a poor family just getting by on the meager wages they earned fishing or pulling rickshaws choose to pay between $1.50 and $7 a month to send their children to private schools if they didn’t have to? In some isolated villages, the closest public school was still too far away, or impossible to get to during the rainy or cold seasons. For other families, the hidden costs of “free” education outweighed the very low cost of schools in their communities (in Kenya, for example, one parent described high up-front costs for a building maintenance fund and two complete school uniforms required by the public schools in her area).

Most reasons that the parents gave for their choice had to do with what the World Bank calls the “short route” to accountability (as opposed to the “long route” which works through the political process). Because school owners’ profits and reputations in the community depend directly on whether parents are happy with their children’s schooling, they paid attention to parents’ complaints. Because teachers in private schools can be fired, they were less likely to be late, idle or absent.

The most surprising thing to those of us who harbor prejudices (hidden even to ourselves?) that illiterate, unschooled parents can’t possibly know more than education experts, is that these parents were making smart, informed decisions. Not that the private schools were perfect—far from it: many of the schools Tooley visited were tucked away in poorly lit, dilapidated, smelly buildings without toilets, and teachers there did lack government training certificates, and were paid less than in the public system. But Tooley found that in low-cost private schools, across the board, classroom sizes were smaller, and teachers were much more likely to be found teaching during an unannounced visit. They are also achieving better results: the students in private schools outperformed their public school peers in nearly every subject they were tested in.

Tooley’s is just one study, and this post has given only a very general outline of its findings. (For a more in-depth look, buy the highly readable and entertaining book, or delve into the academic papers). But one lesson seems clear: Tooley’s work should open the door to more open-minded research on how private schools for the poor can play a part in achieving education for all.