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Submitted by Katie Malouf Bous on

The debate about whether education is a private or a public good is, at best, unhelpful. The benefits of education for both individuals and societies are clearly immense, and the interplay between the two, impossible to separate. As Sylvain rightly points out, does it really matter whether one is greater than the other? Societies have overwhelmingly decided the public benefits of education are substantial enough to merit public action.
What’s more, when large segments of the population are too poor to pay for education, does it really matter whether economic theory believes the individual or the state should pay? (Should the poor be denied the “private good” of education?) This debate is, more than anything, a clever way of re-framing a much older debate about the relative merits of public and private sector involvement in education.
Your blog calls attention to several of the most critical and troubling problems facing the education sector: low education quality, poor learning outcomes, exclusion of the poorest children, teacher absenteeism, weak accountability to parents and communities, elite capture of education resources. You conclude on the basis of these challenges that “public education is failing” (and that private education doesn’t suffer from the same problems). But you have it the wrong way around. We – governments, donors, policy-makers, citizens – have too often failed public education!
The problems you have identified are the symptoms of years of underinvestment and neglect of public education systems. In the global push to expand access to basic education in the 2000’s, many governments failed to invest adequate resources beyond just seats in classrooms, including adequate numbers of trained teachers, relevant education materials, and reforms to make schools more accountable and responsive to their communities. The proliferation of private schools is also a symptom of this lack of investment, not evidence that parents somehow prefer paying for private schools.
In fact, the evidence base in favor of private schools as a solution to these systemic challenges is remarkably weak. A recent review (http://bit.ly/1ujVi1L) found little evidence to support the idea that private schools can reach the poor geographically, nor evidence that the poor can afford them, that they are more accountable, or that they have positive effects on the overall education system. Although the same review found better learning outcomes and teaching quality in private schools, it acknowledges that private schools are often only marginally better than public schools, particularly when you exclude the elite private institutions that are out of reach for the vast majority of students.
The legitimate problems in public schools should not be used as a reason to abandon our public education systems; instead they should be fixed! Much more research, analysis and funding must go into answering the more pressing question in education: what can we do to improve public education systems so that they deliver high-quality, relevant education to all children, especially the poor and marginalized?
These questions must be urgently addressed, and the World Bank should be playing a leadership role by throwing its substantial research and analytical capacity into finding the answers – as well as providing financial support for building public systems. It is deeply disappointing to see its energy devoted to such unhelpful and polemical discussions. We should expect more constructive engagement from the Bank on an issue so critical to achieving its goals of ending poverty and promoting shared prosperity by 2030.