When the words “private sector” and “education” come together, they conjure up the widening chasm between the rich and poor: elite education in private schools. An article  in The New York Times, for example, describes a growing education gap as contributing to a “kind of cultural divide” in the United States. A smart kid growing up without access to good education, the argument goes, will be limited for life, regardless of how bright or motivated he or she is.
At the same time, there are public school success stories in countries like Finland, which has one of the best educational systems in the world. According to an article in The Atlanti c, the Finnish educational system “does not engage the private sector at all.”
So what does this mean for private sector involvement in learning for ordinary people? Can it provide opportunities for the poor? It turns out that it can. The latest issue of Handshake , IFC’s quarterly journal on public-private partnerships (PPPs), shows a few ways this is being done.
At one level, the private sector can handle non-educational aspects of education, like the construction and management of schools, which frees educators to focus on education. A good example comes from New Zealand , where government used PPPs to build, operate and maintain not one, but “bundles” of schools. Cost savings more than made up for the costs of the transaction, leaving more funds available for education while sharing risks fairly between government and private sector partners.
But the private sector can also partner with government to address deeper issues in education, such as financing, use of technology, school choice or teaching quality. For example, in Brazil, private financing and efficiencies brought by private sector partners in a PPP enabled the government to build  schools in areas that previously had no access to early education at all. This doesn’t just help the kids—it also helps their mothers, who benefit by having time for other activities.
The question, then, is not whether the private sector can add value to education and expand its reach to the poor—the real question is how. A well-designed PPP transaction, marrying the best that government and the private sector have to offer, is a good place to start.
To learn more about PPPs and learning, please read the latest issue of Handshake (Issue #8 ), or become a subscriber .