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Public Goals and Private Initiative:The Ironic Truth behind Education for the Poor

Release Date: September 17, 2005
This week, the United Nations 2005 World Summit in New York will address the lack of access to education for the lowest-income families around the globe. Its admirable goal is to achieve “universal primary education by 2015,” through increased international funding and government administration. The educational plight of the world’s poor seems inevitably to result in calls for such responses.

Though the big stick of government intervention seems like a powerful tool for good, in the field of education its results have been disappointing and suggest that government interference in education is part of the problem, not the solution.

Evidence suggests that free, state-run education has not resulted in anywhere near the universal educational outcomes its advocates have promised. In many parts of the Western world, that failure is still evident after more than a century of concentrated effort, in Africa after many billions of dollars in international aid grants. These are humanitarian tragedies indeed and we must consider seriously the reasons for the failure.

Does the educational failure of the world’s poor reflect the impossibility of achieving lofty educational goals, or does it reflect misguided reliance on public financing and provision? Increasingly, the evidence suggests not that poor families are impossible to educate, but that free, state-run schools may not be the best way to deliver education to them.

Groundbreaking research by the University of Newcastle’s Dr. James Tooley in the slums of Africa, India and China reveals that a perhaps majority of students not enrolled in public schools in these countries are being educated in unregistered private schools, paid for by their parents.

Tooley’s research indicates significantly higher achievement among private-school students even after controlling for factors such as parental education and income. His fieldwork findings also show that when visited unannounced, fewer public-school teachers were engaged in teaching activities than their private-school counterparts were.

A recent BBC documentary provided vivid anecdotal evidence of this when it showed footage of teachers sleeping in African public-school classrooms and chatting on their cell phones, while students were left to their own devices.

Though governments in the developing world do not recognize the existence or contribution of private schools, their value is fully acknowledged by parents, who make great personal sacrifices to pay the tuition. One parent explains, “If you were offered free fruit in the market, you would know it was rotten. If you want good fruit, you have to pay for it. The same is true of education.”

Here in Canada, private schools are equally unsung heroes of education for our poorest citizens. An OECD report released this week reveals that even after accounting for parental education and income, private-school students in Canada do much better on mathematics tests than their public school counterparts. Statistics Canada tells us that 29 percent, nearly a third of children who attend private schools in Canada, are from families with incomes of less than $50,000. This suggests that many poor parents in Canada also value private education, despite the financial sacrifices it requires of them.

In fact, there is reason to believe that private schools may offer lower-income families better value for money than public schools offer taxpayers. Evidence of this comes from Children First: School Choice Trust, a greatly over-subscribed program in Ontario that offers grants to lower-income families. The program pays up to 50 percent of tuition at independent elementary school for 800 children whose household income is less than twice the poverty line. The average household income of Children First families is less than $28,000 while the average tuition of their schools is $4,400, about 56 percent of what is spent per student in the public system.

Why are these poor families choosing private schools that will cost them dearly, when public schools are available free of charge? Some want relief from bullying, others religious education, others cite smaller schools with greater academic emphasis and respect for teachers, while yet others help for a special education need. Each family seems to agree with the African parent’s analogy of the free fruit and that educational value offered by private schools is more than worth their financial sacrifices.

Chinese officials told Tooley’s research team private schools for the poor were “logically impossible.” Like those officials, government bureaucrats will continue to deny the existence and potential of educational entrepreneurs, despite the cost of their denial to those poor families they purport to serve. And while they do, the admirable UN targets for universal education will prove continually elusive.