December 11, 2008 1:19PM

When Are “Poor Choices” a Good Thing?

When they are the educational choices made by the world’s poorest people.

By now, most people working in international development and education have heard that some of poorest people on the planet have given up on their failed government schools and started paying for ultra‐​low‐​cost private schooling out of their own nearly‐​empty pockets. But the experts have usually ignored the phenomenon, or deprecated these private schools and the parents choosing them. In the past few years, however, researchers like James Tooley have blow this story wide open, revealing that fee‐​charging private schools are enrolling the majority of students in many Third World slums and villages, and that they are significantly outperforming the much higher‐​spending “free” government schools.

In a new Forbes commentary, former U.S. assisitant secretary of education Chester Finn tells how he went from skeptic to convert by seeing these schools for himself in the impoverished Old City of Hyderabad.

Want to visit these schools, too, but are a little apprehensive about the air fare? Just stay tuned until next April when Cato publishes The Beautiful Tree, James Tooley’s first‐​person narrative account of his research, adventures, and discoveries from the shanty towns of Africa to the remote mountain villages of Gansu, China.

If the free education marketplace can more effectively serve families in some of the most disadvantaged corners of the globe, imagine what it could do in far wealthier nations such as our own.