Religion & Liberty Online

Free primary education is a fundamental good. Isn’t it?

Private schools are for the privileged and those willing to pay high costs for education; everyone else attends public school or seeks alternate options: this is the accepted wisdom. In the United States, the vast majority of students at the primary and secondary level attend public school, funded by the government.

When considering education in the developing world, we may hold fast to this thinking, believing that for those in severely impoverished areas, private education is an unrealistic and scarce option, leaving the poor with public school or no education at all.

Indeed, this was the opinion held by James Tooley, a Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University, until he experienced the landscape firsthand, traveling throughout the developing world, conducting research on educational systems in poor and prosperous areas, documenting numerous case studies, and reporting findings that prove the prevalence of low-cost private schools in poor areas.

In an Education Next article, Tooley discusses his observations and unmasks two common myths associated with education for the poor.

Myth #1: Private Education for the Poor Does Not Exist

We sometimes treat “the poor” as if they were somehow uniquely incapable of rising out of poverty without our assistance. We often assume, if we don’t provide them with everything they need, including education, that no one will. Yet if we look closely (and with a bit more humility), we see indigenous solutions everywhere.

Part of Tooley’s research was undertaken in Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. “Kibera has, according to various estimates, anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people crowded into an area of about 630 acres, smaller than Manhattan’s Central Park,” Tooley notes. It is also a place where private property ownership is difficult to achieve. Many of the homes and businesses are labeled temporary structures, and the owners are unable to gain land title and recognition by the government.

Despite the challenging business landscape, Tooley found entrepreneurs stepping in to fill educational needs. “…We found 76 private elementary and high schools, enrolling more than 12,000 students. The schools are typically run by local entrepreneurs, a third of whom are women who have seen the possibility of making a living from running a school,” he explains. The schools also offered shelter for the poorest, including orphans.

Surprising discoveries were also made in the Gansu province, a remote and mountainous region situated on the upper and lower reaches of the Yellow River in northwest China. “Roughly half of its counties, with 62 percent of the population, are considered ‘impoverished’,” says Tooley. Looking beyond the major towns and bustling villages, where public schools are common, Tooley’s team scaled the steep mountain paths to discover “a total of 696 private schools, 593 of them serving some 61,000 children in the most remote villages.” “Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Gansu’s private schools were set up by individuals, or the villages themselves, because government schools are simply too far away or hard to get to,” says Tooley. Locals identified the vital need for education and acted to meet the need.

But the progress made by private schools is being jeopardized by a surprising adversary in what some people call “the global community.” The international push for free primary education has attracted billions of dollars in support for planting government schools all over the globe. The cause seems unquestionable, but Tooley has noticed some troubling unintended consequences. Kenya has experienced some of these actions directly. Propelled by a $55 million grant from the World Bank in 2003, the Kenyan government instituted Free Primary Education (FPE), a program which official sources estimated, “would allow an extra 1.3 million children to be enrolled in public school: all of them children not previously enrolled in school.”

But the results were less than hoped for and the effect on local entrepreneurs was stark. “Private-school owners in Kibera alone reported a total enrollment decline of some 6,500 after Free Primary Education was initiated; some schools closed altogether,”said Tooley. Also contrary to early predictions, the government schools posted only subtle increases in enrollment numbers, and according to local school owners, “FPE caused an overall net decline in [school] attendance of nearly 8,000 children from one slum alone.”

However well-intended, the “international community” ended up crowding out local education pioneers instead of partnering with them.

This trend can also be seen in Ghana, where the government has built schools across the country. The tuition is free, but the quality is generally low, sending frustrated parents looking for private solutions. The PovertyCure DVD Series features interviews of Ghanaian parents who have opted for private schools providing high-quality education at a fraction of the teacher cost.

This desire for private education is reflected in the high number of private schools within portions of the country. In the Ga district of Ghana, which surrounds the capital city of Accra, Tooley’s researchers found “a total of 799 schools, 25 percent of which were government, 52 percent recognized private, and 23 percent unrecognized private.”

Myth #2: Private Education for the Poor is Low Quality

While publicly-funded schools initially have a larger pool of resources to draw from, the educational experience in private schools may be just as good, if not better. Tooley observed a private school in Ghana consisting of little more than an iron roof and rickety poles. When speaking with the school’s owner, he gained a much different perspective than one might expect from merely looking at the architecture.

“Education is not about buildings,” she scolded. “What matters is what is in the teacher’s heart. In our hearts, we love the children and do our best for them.” This richness is an aspect not always present in government-funded schools, which lack accountability to the parents. Tooley maintains that “when parents pay fees they demand more of the schools, and the schools themselves are more accountable to the parents.” Making a financial commitment to education empowers parents to be more conscious of and committed to the education process, and urges schools to be good stewards of the resources given to them by parents.

Owing to this accountability factor, Tooley found the rate of teacher absenteeism to be higher in most government schools than private schools. In addition, student performance in many private schools was noticeably higher. In Hyderabad, India Tooley observed that “students attending recognized and unrecognized private schools outperformed their peers in government schools by a full standard deviation in both English and math (after accounting for differences in their observable characteristics).”

While entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the high-quality education void across the developing world, sustainable private education requires something more. Recognition of these schools by the government is needed, as well as a legal framework that allows for their expansion. Some countries have made great strides in this area. In Peru, for example, the law on for-profit education was liberalized, with the goal of allowing international companies involvement in the education process. As competition is good for the development of high-quality goods and services, it is also beneficial for education.

In addition, outside investment in private education can yield high-level growth and a long-term impact, providing resources initially lacking in school start-ups. Tooley and others believe the high quality education provided by private schools makes this a worthwhile venture, not just for communities themselves, but countries as a whole. He co-founded Omega Schools, which creates private schools in Ghana that benefit low income families and empower students. In just three years, the Omega Schools chain has grown to 20 schools and 11,000 students.

Through his research and hands-on experience, Tooley offers thorough analysis and important insights relative to education systems in the developing world and the benefit of private education in enabling low-cost, effective learning and jump-starting prosperity. The for-profit model in the developing world offers a high regard for quality, healthy accountability, and a refreshing view of empowerment: aspects that should be cherished and encouraged in any education system.

For more information on Tooley’s work visit his PovertyCure voice page.

This article is cross-posted from

Matthea Brandenburg

Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.