Private Schooling for the Third World Poor
However well-intentioned, the Global Campaign for Education is overlooking something rather important that is happening in developing countries today: the phenomenal growth of private schools for the poor.
I first discovered for myself the phenomenon of private schools for the poor while consulting for the International Finance Corporation, the private finance arm of the World Bank, in Hyderabad, India, in 2000.
I’d just published an argument for privatization of education, Reclaiming Education, and was wrestling with the criticism from even sympathetic readers that what I’d argued might be good for the middle classes, or richer countries, but what about the poor, especially in poor countries? That criticism bothered me. I knew from my reading of E. G. West’s book Education and the State that the poor in Victorian England were largely provided for by private education, before the state got involved. Why wouldn’t the same be true of the poor today? Out of curiosity, I left my work—looking at private schools for the elite and middle classes—and took an autorickshaw into the slum areas behind the imposing 16th-century Charminar in the center of the Old City. And to my surprise, I found private schools on almost every street corner. Inspired by that, I grew to know many of the school owners, teachers, parents, and children; I learned of their motivations and difficulties and their successes and requirements.
Since then I have found private schools in battle-scarred buildings in Somaliland and Sierra Leone; in the shanty town of Makoko built on stilts above the Lagos lagoons in Nigeria; scattered among the tin and cardboard huts of Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, Kenya; in the teeming townships perched on the shoreline of Accra, Ghana; in slums and villages across India; among the “floating population” in Beijing; and in remote Himalayan villages in China. Indeed, I have yet to find a developing country environment where private schools for the poor don’t exist. My teams have combed poor areas—slums or shanty towns in and around the major cities and villages inhabited by peasant farmers and fishermen—going down every lane and alleyway, asking people in marketplaces and on the streets where the poor are sending their children to school. And while we’ve been conducting the censuses, we’ve been finding out as much as possible about the schools, what their facilities are like, whether teachers are teaching, building up a comprehensive picture of the private schools and comparing them with the government alternative. Then, most important of all, we’ve been comparing the achievement of students in the private and public schools serving the poor areas; testing a stratified random sample of 4,000 children in each country, chosen equally from registered private, unregistered private, and government schools; and using advanced statistical techniques to control for as many background variables as we can, to find out whether the poor are better served by public or private education.
Interestingly, the study found not only that a majority of children in poor areas were privately educated, but that student-teacher ratios were lower than in "public" schools, and produced higher levels of proficiency in language and math. Private schools were actually better supplied with facilities like toilets and running water than government ones. Teachers, while lower paid, came from the immediate neighborhood or community, instead of being bused in.
One of the most intriguing findings is how competitive private schools are in cost:
...there are differences between countries in the relative costs of public and private schooling. In countries where public schooling is entirely free at the point of delivery—India for instance—clearly, the private schools cost more for parents. But in other countries—China and Ghana, for instance—where public schools charge low fees or “levies,” we find that sometimes the private schools are undercutting public schools, because the really poor can’t afford the public option. What makes the private schools financially attractive is that they allow the parents to pay on a daily basis—perhaps 10 cents a day—rather than to pay for the full term up-front as they must for the public schools, even though this might work out more cheaply if they could afford to pay it. In Kenya, the government has recently introduced “free primary education,” but our interviews with parents point to many “hidden costs” of public schools, such as the requirement for full uniforms, which mean that, in practice, private slum schools often turn out to be less expensive.
Naturally, this doesn't sit entirely well with Oxfam. Its report on education expressed a concern that
if poor parents support private education, this “carries a real danger of undermining the government schooling system.”
In other words, the existence of the government schooling system is an end in itself, even if private schools perform better at lower cost, and the poor prefer scraping up the tuition to sending their kids to the government alternative. As Tooley responds to that "oddest" of objections,
What it seems to be saying is that poor parents will just have to wait until “things get better.” By removing your children from the totally inadequate state school, imply development experts, you are jeopardizing the state system. It doesn’t matter that you are poor yourself and that your children’s education may be the only viable vehicle out of poverty; you’d better stay in the state sector and hope that something happens to make things better. Meanwhile, your children can irrevocably suffer from teachers who don’t turn up, or who don’t teach if they do turn up, until governments learn the lessons from experiments elsewhere. But don’t, whatever you do, send your children to private school!
It seems to me that parents in the slums and villages may be less sanguine and more impatient. Parents may not feel they have any impact on distant or corrupt political processes. They may not believe in any case that politicians can or will effect solutions to their problems. Their only realistic alternative might be to exit the state system. Increasingly, it seems to me that progress toward accountable education might not necessarily involve complex political processes and the realignment of power relationships. Instead, the lessons coming loudly and clearly from parents using the private system might be that accountable education involves a very simple and easy transfer of power from the politician to the parent, and that can be done now.
The belief that government schools are a good in their own right is usually coupled with the assumption, explicit or implicit, that a government school system promotes a unified "democratic" culture or a common schooling in the values of good citizenship. What this means in practice, though, is education in the official ideology of the state, and inculation of the habits that make one a good servant of the state and its ruling class. In America in the early 20th century, this "education for democracy" meant indoctrination in "100% Americanism" and flag-worship; a distorted, statist understanding of American history in which the Federalist "Founding Father" demigods saved the country from ruin; and good habits of consumption, like eschewing "old-fashioned" home-grown vegetables and home-baked bread for cooking out of a can, like up-to-date "good Americans" did. To put it more succinctly, the official ideology of the "public" school system was One Nation, One Government, One School System.
But the really odd Oxfam objection, in my opinion, is this one:
private teachers’ “overwhelming objective is to cram the heads of the pupils, so that they may pass the relevant tests and examinations,” rather than engage in wider educational activities....
Talk about mirror-imaging! Obviously, they've never seen an American public school in the era of the No Child's Behind Left Unviolated Act.
Oxfam was relatively polite in its criticism, leavening it with plenty of honesty in admitting the superior performance of private schools in many reflects. Not so with the government school establishment in Third World countries. In another article, linked by Richard Garner, Tooley writes of the reaction by a representative of the Nigerian education commission, on a visit to "public" schools in Makoko:
although my visit was announced, and I came with the commissioner of education’s representative, I saw the headmistress beating children to get them into the classrooms, and found one teacher fast asleep at his desk. The welcoming chorus of the children didn’t rouse him.
The commissioner’s representative, however, described parents who send their children to the mushrooming private schools as “ignoramuses”, wanting the status symbol of private education (saying this, without irony, standing by her brand new silver Mercedes), but hoodwinked by unscrupulous businessmen.
“They should all be closed down,” she told me.
As I've commented before, saying that any service (like healthcare or education) should be a universal "right," means in practice that you get it in the (rationed) amount and form the State wants you to have, and that buying it in the form you want becomes much more difficult (if not criminalized). It means the providers of the service will be cartelized, and that the provision of the service will be regulated according to their professional culture and institutional mindset. Or as a Nigerian parent commented in Tooley's article:
If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.
For some excellent analysis of the role of government schooling in "getting our minds right," I recommend Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society and John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education.
There's one aspect of Tooley's work I don't care for: his assumption that "private" education means schooling provided by a for-profit capitalist enterprise. One thing I brought away from reading Kropotkin, E.P. Thompson, and Colin Ward was the amazing extent to which the working class relied on their own cooperative, self-organized education in the days before universal free state schooling. Large numbers of working class children in nineteenth century Britain attended "penny schools" conducted by crippled or aged workers. Alternative schools were organized by anarchists in Italy and Spain. And then there's the large-scale explosion of alternative schooling in the Sixties counterculture and the subsequent movements toward decentralism and cooperative economics. The Anarchist FAQ has a lot of good information on Modern Schools.
public schools , education