By Jason Overdorf
Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue - In India, education is supposed to be free and universal through age 14. In fact, it often doesn't work out that way. Consider Dhiraj Sharma, the 10-year-old son of a bicycle rickshaw driver in Dehli, who was forced to stay home last year after the local state denied him admission because he didn't have the right papers—a common problem. So Dhiraj is now applying to a private school. For just $6 a month, the R.S. School offers a much better education than the state, says Dhiraj's father, Ramesh, complaining that his son "finished class three in government school, and he can't read anything!"
Such problems have sparked a boom in private schooling throughout the developing world. In 2000, James Tooley, an administrator for Orient Global, a Singapore company that invests in education for the poor, went walking in Hyderabad, India, and was startled to find private schools on virtually every corner. He launched a full-scale study in India, China and Africa, and everywhere, officials and aid agencies told him such schools for the poor didn't exist. But when his researchers explored the villages and slums, they found that not only did they exist, they were flourishing. "It's a tremendous success story," says Tooley. "Entrepreneurs are catering to poor, low-income families, and they're achieving better than the government at a fraction of the cost."
The story was perhaps most dramatic in China. Tooley and his chief researcher, Qiang Liu, traveled to the poorest, most remote villages of Gansu province. Officials there insisted there were no private schools. And so it seemed, until Qiang woke up one morning at dawn and canvassed the vegetable market. Sure enough, women who'd traveled there from the neighboring countryside told him about private schools farther up in the mountains. "In the end, our survey found 586 of them in these remote villages, where the government and [aid workers] said there were none."
Elsewhere the private schools were easier to spot and even more numerous. In Delhi, hand-painted signs advertise low-cost private schools at every twist of the narrow lanes. In Hyderabad, 60 percent of the schools serving poor neighborhoods are private. None of them get state aid, and two thirds are not recognized by the government at all—meaning they are essentially black market. In the hinterlands of Accra, Ghana, Tooley's team found the same phenomenon: 65 percent of kids there attended private, unaided schools. In Lagos, in three different slums, the figure jumped to 75 percent.
The numbers suggest that despite the low prices (as little as $1.50 a month), parents believe such schools do a better job than the government. And they're generally right. Harvard's Michael Kremer found that though private-school salaries were lower in India than in public schools, teachers at the former skipped fewer classes (absenteeism is a notorious problem in India's state-run schools). Similarly, a 1999 survey conducted by Delhi University's Centre for Development Economics found that while teachers in state schools spent their time sitting idle, the makeshift private schools enjoyed "feverish classroom activity."
Harder-working teachers, of course, get better results—even when they lack qualifications. Kremer's 2002 study of Colombia's PACES program, one of the largest school-voucher projects ever implemented, found that three years after switching to relatively low-cost private schools, students had accomplished more, repeated fewer grades and scored higher on tests, and were less likely to have dropped out to take jobs, than were their counterparts still stuck in the government system. Other studies have reported similar results in Thailand, Tanzania, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Indeed, it's remarkable how many cheap private schools manage to do more with less. In Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorer Indian states, for instance, Oxford University's Geeta Kingdon has found that private, unaided schools are about twice as cost-effective as government schools, achieving better results in math and comparable results in reading at half the cost. The explanation lies in basic market forces. Competition forces these schools to work effectively. It also produces greater accountability.
In India, teachers' unions are so powerful that educators are almost never fired or transferred for transgressions. And parents are powerless. "At government schools, parents won't even be allowed into the compound, let alone to meet a teacher, but in private schools, in most cases, they have parent-teacher associations," says Parth Shah, president of New Delhi's Center for Civil Society and coordinator of India's School Choice Campaign—a program that promotes vouchers to allow poor kids to attend private school. "Parents feel they have a right to ask a question of a private school."
This higher standard is on view at Priya Adarsh School, another low-cost private operator in northeast Delhi. Here the principal—keen on keeping customers—watches his teachers on a closed-circuit television while he pecks away at a spreadsheet on his desktop PC. The standards aren't perfect, of course; when NEWSWEEK visited, the camera caught one teacher whacking a pupil with a ruler. But at least every teacher was in his or her classroom teaching, and every student was sitting at a desk and paying attention.
Skeptics decry this "at least they're trying" argument. In many regards the cheap private schools are substandard—with poor infrastructure, high teacher-student ratios and poorly qualified instructors—even if they are better than state schools. R. Govinda, head of the department of schools and nonformal education at New Delhi's National University of Educational Planning and Administration, says embracing cheap private schools is defeatist. "I'm not ready to settle for a substandard alternative," he says. "Comparing them is like comparing two people who are drowning. One is drowning in 20 feet of water, the other is drowning in 30 feet of water. Does it make a difference?"
Other opponents, both in India and elsewhere, argue that ceding the educational field to private players will put an end to any hope of an equal education for all. A study based on a survey of parent satisfaction published earlier this year by researchers at Columbia University found that relying on private markets can undermine educational equity and universal access. Furthermore, it argues, private schools strive for superior quality only where they compete with government schools; otherwise they offer "lower-quality, second-chance" educations to children without any other option. "There is no reason to assume that private markets will necessarily improve the quality of education," the study concludes.
School-choice advocates respond that it is a fantasy to suggest public education is providing a quality education to all. "You can't compare the reality of private education with some myth of what public education has been like," says Tooley. At least cheap private schools are responsive to parents, and the more parents who choose this route, the better private schools will get, thanks to increased capital, higher demand, more competition and economies of scale. "These are [now] small cottage industries," says Tooley. "They're mom-and-pop stores. There are thousands and thousands of them. Some of them are beginning to consolidate, and you're getting small, embryonic chains."
That's where he's looking to invest much of the $100 million education fund he manages for Orient Global. Already the fund has given grants to six private-school associations or institutions in Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Nepal, and Tooley's team is conducting research in India ahead of opening a chain of budget private schools for the poor there that would set new benchmarks in quality. "It's an inadequate analogy," says Tooley. "But when I go shopping in a supermarket, I go to one of several chains, and poor people also go shopping there. Poorer people. They have the same diversity of choice and the same quality. The chain doesn't discriminate between us. Also, some of them have food stamps or social-security payments, which are like school vouchers. So when you have competing chains of schools, when the market system develops, that inequality will become less relevant." In the meantime, as the slums of Delhi, Lagos and Accra show, black-market schools will continue to thrive, ensuring that, even in places where government has failed them, poor kids can get an adequate education—on the books or off.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.