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The Future of Education Is...Private School? (Bright Magazine)

October 16, 2018

By April Zhu

From the article:

One of the biggest trends in international education right now—and certainly among its biggest controversies—is “low-cost private schools” (LCPS). But if you were to take a look into a few LCPS in the global south, you’d find a staggering diversity: from one-room schools started by a mother frustrated with public schools to those outfitted with tablets and operated by foreign-owned chains. Some of these schools demonstrate significant gains in learning compared to public schools; others do not. Some are paid for by parents themselves; others partner with governments to run public schools.

In fact, LCPS are so heterogeneous that the term doesn’t seem to describe much about these schools at all other than the fact that they are not public and not high-end. The one thing they seem to have in common, however, is that the mere mention of LCPS stirs up controversy.

Some of the criticism against these schools is purely ideological, with detractors saying that education is a public good and should remain free to all. Other criticism has been leveled specifically at foreign-owned chains.

At the end of the day, however, a growing number of parents in the global south are sending their kids to private schools. In Kenya, for instance, the number of private schools has more than quadrupled in the past decade. Many low-income, working class families are opting to enroll their children in private schools that cost an average of 12 percent of a household’s income per child — even if it means forgoing primary public education that has been free since 2003.

To make sense of this all, BRIGHT Magazine brought together a group of experts for a Twitter Q&A session yesterday. Some of them run LCPS, while others study and support them. We spoke to Susannah Hares (Center for Global Development)Deborah Kimathi (Dignitas Project), Paul Skidmore(Rising Academy Network), and Prachi Srivastava (Western University). In the excerpt below, we delve into what LCPS are, how they work, and how effective they are in providing a quality education.

BRIGHT Magazine: Are LCPS actually affordable? What should “low-cost” mean when we’re talking about educating the poorest of the poor?

Deborah Kimathi: In an ideal world, every child would get the education they deserve, courtesy of their government. However, in many contexts, governments fail to provide. Low-cost solutions gain momentum out of demand for those needs to be met, but still leave many children behind. They are not always affordable, and the reality is that many exist as businesses, rather than with a desire to provide quality education. As a business model, they’re simply not designed to reach the “poorest of the poor.”

Paul Skidmore: The debate about affordability often generates more heat than light. Clearly LCPS are affordable to some parents or they’d go out of business! The question is which parents, and neither side of the debate has covered themselves in glory in answering this question.

Advocates of LCPS can be guilty of wishful thinking about where in the income (and spatial) distribution LCPS can reach. Critics of LCPS can come dangerously close to saying they know more about how low income parents should spend their money than parents themselves.

From a moral perspective, what I find troubling is the way this debate distorts our intuitions about need. The coverage of learning data is so patchy we can’t construct a complete “cognitive poverty line” but we have a pretty good idea what it would show: that your educational destiny is shaped more by which country you are born in than how educationally advantaged you are within that country.

For example, in Sierra Leone, girls that finish primary school are better off than girls that don’t. But how much better off? As Justin Sandefur has shown, 96 percent of young women in Sierra Leone who leave education after completing primary school can’t read a simple four-word sentence. “Leaving no one behind” is an essential goal for policy-makers, but it shouldn’t mean discounting approaches which help families who, in global terms, are still among the most educationally disadvantaged people on the planet.

Prachi Srivastava: Toughie! And related to the definition question. We usually refer to the “poorest of the poor” as those in the lowest 20 percent of income bands. Research shows that at the moment these households have to pay direct fees and costs, they are unaffordable. They have to decide who to send to fee-charging schools and whom not to. Or they access these schools but inconsistently, sometimes for only a couple of years, sometimes for some months.

So then the question is, should this type of provision be subsidized? Well, in India, private schools are subsidized by the state. The Right to Education Act requires all private schools to give 25 percent of their seats for free to disadvantaged children. But my research shows that, even then, the “poorest” can’t access them. Why? In some cases, because of gaming the system. Some households may not have the information or the social connections to access these seats.

In short, are low-fee schools affordable to the poorest 20 percent? No. Should they be subsidized by governments to make them affordable? That is a kettle of fish when we simultaneously argue that there are scarce resources for education domestically and internationally. Who goes to which types of schools? What is the value-added of subsidizing these schools? Would it achieve broad-based equity?

Susannah Hares: There’s evidence that some non-state schools do reach the most marginalized. But the extent to which LCPS promote or reduce equity is hotly contested. DFiD Education’s rigorous review found ambiguous evidence on whether or not they reach the poor There’s also evidence that some chains — like PEASchools in Uganda — is educating more kids from the poorest quintiles than government schools, and that all-in fees are lower. Some folks argue that public-private partnerships — where the government essentially pays for the fees — are the way to overcome equity barriers. But research (e.g., by Vijay Kumar in India) suggests that the poorest are not benefiting from government subsidies to private schools.

Read the full article here


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Susannah Hares
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