Private Schools for the Poor

Article excerpt

James Tooley ("Underground Education," features, Fall 2005) reports widespread existence of private schools in five poor countries--India, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and (to a lesser extent) China--and addresses two common "myths" about such schooling: that "private education for the poor does not exist" and that "private education for the poor is low quality."

Evidence for debunking the first myth already existed nearly a decade ago. Several studies found that even the poorest households in India and Pakistan use private schools extensively. Tooley's contribution is to extend the South Asian evidence to countries in Africa and to test it in communist China.

His findings also add to the evidence base on the second myth: namely, that, in several developing countries, private school students outperform their public-school counterparts after controlling for schools' student-intakes. Thus the article helps to build a fuller picture of private and public schools for the poor in developing countries and adds to existing knowledge.

However, I believe that Tooley's concern that public intervention crowds out private initiative in education is not well placed. First, the evidence adduced for such a trade-off is weak. Second, surely one should not lament parents' abandonment of private for public schools when fees are abolished in the latter. It is a welfare-maximizing choice parents make in light of information about their circumstances, which is far more information than that available to the analyst.

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While agreeing with Tooley that private schools tend to provide better-quality education (as I also found in a 1996 study I conducted), I would be more cautious and nuanced about the policy implications. Tooley advocates reform programs that support private initiative with government support, such as voucher schemes and charter schools. …