Why the World’s Poor Choose to Pay Private School Tuition

In The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, researcher James Tooley documented how low-cost private schools operated in the world’s poorest areas, from the slums of Hyderabad in India to remote mountain villages in China and shanty towns in Kenya. According to the international development crowd, these schools shouldn’t exist – after all, the governments in these areas provide schooling at no charge. Why would the poorest of the world’s poor pay for something they could get for free?   

The answer, of course, is that they know they get what they pay for. As one father in poverty-stricken Makoko, Nigeria put it:

“Going to the public school here in Nigeria, particularly in this area in Lagos State, is just… wasting the time of day… because they don’t teach them anything. The difference is clear… the children of the private school can speak very well, they know what they are doing but there in the public [schools], the children are abandoned.”   (Page 129, emphasis in the original.)

A recent article in The Economist illustrates this phenomenon:

THE Ken Ade Private School is not much to look at. Its classrooms are corrugated tin shacks scattered through the stinking streets of Makoko, Lagos’s best-known slum, two grades to a room. The windows are glassless; the light sockets without bulbs. The ceiling fans are still. But by mid-morning deafening chants rise above the mess, as teachers lead gingham-clad pupils in educational games and dance. Chalk-boards spell out the A-B-Cs for the day. A smart, two-storey government school looms over its ramshackle private neighbour. Its children sit twiddling their thumbs. The teachers have not shown up. 

What’s the difference? It mostly comes down to a matter of incentives. Asked why parents choose to pay private school tuition when the government schools are “free,” one government school principal in Ghana explained: 

It’s supervision. Proprietors are very tough. If teachers don’t show up and teach, the parents react. Private schools need to make a profit, with the profit they pay their teachers, and so they need as many students as they can get. So they are tough with their teachers and supervise them carefully. I can’t do that with my teachers. I can’t sack them. I can’t even remove them from [the payroll] if they are late or don’t turn up. Only the District Office can. And it’s very rare for a teacher to be sacked. (Page 71.)

It’s no wonder then that private schools are proliferating in the world’s poorest areas. According to The Economist, hundreds of new private schools are opening in Lagos, Nigeria, many of them charging less than $1 a week. In poor countries, official estimates show that private schools now educate more than one-fifth of all students, double the proportion a decade ago. And even that figure probably underestimates private school enrollment since a high proportion of private schools in poor countries are unregistered. As The Economist notes, “A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records.”

The market is still emerging and although the private schools tend to outperform the government alternatives, that isn’t a very high bar. Parents often lack access to information about school performance from reliable sources. Schools have an incentive to exaggerate their performance, so some in the international aid community want the government to set and enforce national standards and mandate national exams. However, there is no good evidence that national standards or testing drive performance. Moreover, as The Economist observed, ”where governments are hostile to private schools, regulation is often a pretext to harass them.” 

The absence of government standards does not imply the lack of any standards. In a competitive market, schools have an interest in demonstrating to parents that they provide high-quality education. The rapidly expansion of the private sector will create opportunities for non-profit or for-profit private certifiers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, as The Economist highlights, there are low-cost ways to provide parents with the information they need:

In a joint study by the World Bank, Harvard University and Punjab’s government, parents in some villages were given report cards showing the test scores of their children and the average for schools nearby, both public and private. A year later participating villages had more children in school and their test scores in maths, English and Urdu were higher than in comparable villages where the cards were not distributed. The scheme was very cheap, and the improvement in results larger than that from some much pricier interventions, such as paying parents to send their children to school.

In a corresponding editorial, The Economist calls on the governments of poor countries to “boost” private education through school vouchers “or get out of the way.” The editorial also argues that “ideally” the governments should “regulate schools to ensure quality” and “run public exams to help parents make informed choices” but also observes that “governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be able to these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not doing them at all.” Indeed

Rather than lobby the often-corrupt and/or incompetent Third World governments, the best thing NGOs could do to improve education would be to grant scholarships directly to the poor and provide private certification and/or expert reviews of schools. If we want to ensure that even the world’s poorest children have access to a quality education, schools should be held directly accountable to parents empowered with the means to choose a school and the information to choose wisely.