Public v Private provision of education is a hot and divisive topic. So let’s get started. Today, CGD’s Justin Sandefur  (right) puts the case for private. Tomorrow Kevin Watkins of the Brookings Institution responds. Be warned, their posts are pretty long and very passionate. Fasten seatbelts please:
While traveling in Pakistan a couple weeks ago, I took advantage of a brief flicker of electricity to check my twitter feed, and found this from Duncan.
After years of watching broken public school systems fail to educate their children, parents in Pakistan and many other parts of the developing world have taken matters into their own hands. Low-cost private schools are growing by leaps and bounds, especially in rural areas. The number of private schools grew by nearly ten-fold in Pakistan  from 1983 to 2000, reaching about 35% of public enrollment, doubled in India  from 1993 to 2003, and tripled their enrollment share in Kenya from 1997 to 2006 — at the same time fees were abolished in Kenyan public schools!
Pearson’s plan is to invest in these low-cost private schools springing up across Africa and Asia, starting with a chain of schools in Ghana and Kenya. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, Michael Barber, is also the architect of DFID’s support for a government voucher program in Pakistan that enables poor children to attend low-cost private schools .
The development industry is reflexively resistant to such private sector initiatives, as illustrated by the #dumbideas hash-tag and the quotes in the Guardian piece. Here are three reasons to overcome that reflex.
Three myths about education in poor countries
Myth #1. The push for universal primary education (UPE) has been pretty successful.
If success is defined as herding kids into classrooms, then yes, maybe. By one count, over half of countries were on track to meet the MDG for primary education  as of 2011. But going to school is not an end in and of itself. And the push for universal primary school enrollment has been an abject failure in terms of what really matters — learning.
Kenya is a good example, where enrollment and learning diverge. Behold the following challenging reading passage from Kenya’s public school curriculum.
According to a national survey by Uwezo Kenya, only half of children in grade 3 can read this type of paragraph , although it’s on the grade 2 syllabus. So while it’s great that only 3 to 4% of primary-school aged children in Kenya are not in school, it’d be nice if they could also read.
But the real scandal here, as highlighted by my CGD colleague Lant Pritchett and co-author Amanda Beatty, is not that half of third-graders effectively can’t read, it’s that staying in school doesn’t help much . This is what Pritchett and Beatty call the ‘flatness of the learning curve’. Of Kenyan children who couldn’t read the paragraph above in grade 3, only a third will learn to do so in grade 4 — in India, Pakistan, and Tanzania only 1 in 5 will learn to read with an additional year or schooling, and in Uganda only 1 in 12. Even after 8 years of schooling in India, almost 1 in 3 pupils still won’t be able to read a simple paragraph like this.
Kids are going to school; they’re just not learning anything.
Myth #2. There is “very little evidence that private schools provide a better service than the public sector.”
The Guardian attributed this view to Kevin Watkins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. While I have enormous respect for Mr. Watkin’s work on UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report  –it’s worth a read — this statement is increasingly out of date.
For places including India, Pakistan, and Kenya, there are at least two types of evidence that private schools offer much better service. Call them the direct approach and the indirect approach.
The direct approach simply compares test scores between public and private schools. The figure below shows learning achievement among students at the Bridge International Academies in Kenya — one of the schools Pearson will support –relative to their neighbors. By grade 3 they’re scoring roughly 90% higher on reading fluency and 45% higher on comprehension .
The obvious follow-up question is whether this is just “garbage in, garbage out”, whereby private schools pick the best pupils and produce the best scores. To test this hypothesis, my colleagues Tessa Bold (Goethe University), Mwangi Kimenyi (Brookings), GermanoMwabu (U of Nairobi) and I did some relatively simple analysis of the gap in test scores between public and private schools. We find a performance gap between public and private schools of roughly one full standard deviation, which is more than seven-times larger  than the impact of the best-documented, successful interventions to improve public schools  in Kenya, which find an effect of about 0.14 standard deviations. More importantly, this gap does not appear to due to selection of smart kids into private schools. When private enrollment goes up in a district, overall test performance rises as well — a phenomenon that can’t be explained merely by sorting of good pupils into good schools.
In a similar study of test scores in India, Alex Tabarrok from George Mason University finds not only that private primary schools vastly out-perform public schools, but again, that this result is mostly not due to “cream skimming”  of the best pupils. As more and more students flock to private schools — exceeding 70% of all pupils in some districts — the public-private gap doesn’t narrow.
The direct approach clearly signals huge gains from private schooling. How but the indirect approach?
By economists’ logic of ‘revealed preference’, the stampede of pupils from the public to the private sector would seem to be a strong indication of what parents think of the quality of public schools. A study by Michael Kremer of Harvard and Karthik Muralidharan of UCSD found that over 80% of government-school teachers in India send their own children to a private school .
As Muralidharan summarized for a New York Times reporter, “What does it say about the quality of your product that you can’t even give it away for free ?”
Myth #3. Private schools are too expensive for the poor.
Particularly for readers in the UK, the association between private schools and class snobbery is, I suspect, pretty hard to overcome. But the explosion of new, low-cost private schools since the 1990s in South Asia and parts of Africa has very different class dynamics.
Research by Tahrir Andrabi (Pomona College), Jishnu Das (World Bank), and Asim Khwaja (Harvard) shows that the average fee of a rural private school in Pakistan is less than a dime a day (Rs.6). They also find that villages where private schools emerge have a significantly smaller gender gap in enrollment. In Kenya, my colleagues and I examined fees paid by parents, and calculated that two-thirds of private schools cost less to operate than the median public school .
In India, the previous study by Kremer and Muralidharan finds that provinces and districts with lower per capita incomes have higher rates of private schooling. Rather than being driven by wealth and privilege, they find that demand for private schooling is associated with the failure of public school systems. Private schools are significantly more likely to emerge in villages where public school teachers are frequently absent, or frequently not teaching when they show up. (See the graph.)
There is nothing egalitarian about consigning the poor to shoddy public schools where teachers are chronically absent, classrooms are overcrowded, the school day is short, and very little learning takes place.
The elephant in the room
There’s a risk of overselling the case for private schools. After all, they do charge fees.
Separating the provision of education (by private schools) and its financing (by government), requires initiatives like voucher programs and charter schools. That’s a whole separate post, but the challenges of designing a good voucher or charter school program are not trivial. Countries as diverse as Sweden  and Colombia  have introduced vouchers in a way that improves overall quality without compromising equal access. Chile got things wrong  — after introducing vouchers, Chile saw a massive exodus to the private sector, and increased socio-economic stratification between schools, arguably because Chile allowed schools receiving vouchers to conduct selective admissions  and charge top-up fees, encouraging schools to compete on who they could attract, not what they taught.
The real frontier in research is not about whether private schools work, but how we can support this market so it ends up looking more like Sweden’s rather than Chile’s.
From Lahore to rural Balochistan, and Nairobi to the farthest reaches of the Rift Valley, parents are no longer waiting for superman . They have accepted that neither the public sector nor the aid industry is going to sweep in and save their children from broken schools, so they’re taking matters into their own hands. Hats off to DFID and Pearson for trying to figure out a way to help them.
And tomorrow Kevin Watkins fights back. Which one is Superman? Which one is Lex Luthor ? Think we may have to have a vote once the dust has settled.
This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power