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Private schools for the poor.

James Tooley ("Underground Education," features, Fall 2005) reports widespread existence of private schools in five poor countries--India, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and (to a lesser extent) China--and addresses two common "myths" about such schooling: that "private education for the poor does not exist" and that "private education for the poor is low quality."

Evidence for debunking the first myth already existed nearly a decade ago. Several studies found that even the poorest households in India and Pakistan use private schools extensively. Tooley's contribution is to extend the South Asian evidence to countries in Africa and to test it in communist China.

His findings also add to the evidence base on the second myth: namely, that, in several developing countries, private school students outperform their public-school counterparts after controlling for schools' student-intakes. Thus the article helps to build a fuller picture of private and public schools for the poor in developing countries and adds to existing knowledge.

However, I believe that Tooley's concern that public intervention crowds out private initiative in education is not well placed. First, the evidence adduced for such a trade-off is weak. Second, surely one should not lament parents' abandonment of private for public schools when fees are abolished in the latter. It is a welfare-maximizing choice parents make in light of information about their circumstances, which is far more information than that available to the analyst.


While agreeing with Tooley that private schools tend to provide better-quality education (as I also found in a 1996 study I conducted), I would be more cautious and nuanced about the policy implications. Tooley advocates reform programs that support private initiative with government support, such as voucher schemes and charter schools. From colonial times, India has used a charter-like system of publicly funded, privately produced education; such private-public partnerships are called "aided" schools. However, evidence from Uttar Pradesh, India, suggests that such schools are just as ineffective and poorly resourced as public schools.

Thus private ownership per se may not be the key. Other attendant factors are also crucial: whether there are performance criteria or incentives built in to the formula for government aid (there are none in India); how much central oversight the government provides (a great deal in India); and to what extent the government is able to resist demands from aided-school teachers to be granted the same employment and other arrangements as those existing for public school teachers.

In Uttar Pradesh, militantly organized aided-school teachers' unions have demanded and successfully obtained treatment comparable to that received by public school teachers. Over time, aided schools have become very similar to public schools in terms of level of teachers' salaries, school resources, centralized administration, salary disbursement, teacher appointment procedures, and student achievement outcomes. Aided-school teachers are no longer locally accountable. This example encourages caution in assuming that private delivery of publicly funded education is a panacea. A good deal of thought may be necessary about the design of incentives in the grant to such schools and on how to keep "private" truly private by resisting demands from vested interests to make such schools more like public schools.


Research Officer, Centre for the Study of African Economies

University of Oxford
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Title Annotation:correspondence
Author:Kingdon, Geeta
Publication:Education Next
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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