Why the World’s Poor Choose to Pay Private School Tuition

(Guest post by Jason Bedrick)

In The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, researcher James Tooley documented how low-cost private schools operated in the world’s poorest areas, from the slums of Hyderabad in India to remote mountain villages in China and shanty towns in Kenya. According to the international development crowd, these schools shouldn’t exist — after all, the governments in these areas provide schooling at no charge. Why would the poorest of the world’s poor pay for something they could get for free?   

The answer, of course, is that they know they get what they pay for. As one father in poverty-stricken Makoko, Nigeria put it:

“Going to the public school here in Nigeria, particularly in this area in Lagos State, is just… wasting the time of day… because they don’t teach them anything. The difference is clear… the children of the private school can speak very well, they know what they are doing but there in the public [schools], the children are abandoned.”   (Page 129, emphasis in the original.)

A recent article in The Economist illustrates this phenomenon:

THE Ken Ade Private School is not much to look at. Its classrooms are corrugated tin shacks scattered through the stinking streets of Makoko, Lagos’s best-known slum, two grades to a room. The windows are glassless; the light sockets without bulbs. The ceiling fans are still. But by mid-morning deafening chants rise above the mess, as teachers lead gingham-clad pupils in educational games and dance. Chalk-boards spell out the A-B-Cs for the day. A smart, two-storey government school looms over its ramshackle private neighbour. Its children sit twiddling their thumbs. The teachers have not shown up.

What’s the difference? It mostly comes down to a matter of incentives. Asked why parents choose to pay private school tuition when the government schools are “free,” one government school principal in Ghana explained:

It’s supervision. Proprietors are very tough. If teachers don’t show up and teach, the parents react. Private schools need to make a profit, with the profit they pay their teachers, and so they need as many students as they can get. So they are tough with their teachers and supervise them carefully. I can’t do that with my teachers. I can’t sack them. I can’t even remove them from [the payroll] if they are late or don’t turn up. Only the District Office can. And it’s very rare for a teacher to be sacked. (Page 71.)

It’s no wonder then that private schools are proliferating in the world’s poorest areas. According to The Economist, hundreds of new private schools are opening in Lagos, Nigeria, many of them charging less than $1 a week. In poor countries, official estimates show that private schools now educate more than one-fifth of all students, double the proportion a decade ago. And even that figure probably underestimates private school enrollment since a high proportion of private schools in poor countries are unregistered. As The Economist notes, “A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records.”

The market is still emerging and although the private schools tend to outperform the government alternatives, that isn’t a very high bar. Parents often lack access to information about school performance from reliable sources. Schools have an incentive to exaggerate their performance, so some in the international aid community want the government to set and enforce national standards and mandate national exams. However, there is no good evidence that national standards or testing drive performance. Moreover, as The Economist observed, “where governments are hostile to private schools, regulation is often a pretext to harass them.” 

The absence of government standards does not imply the lack of any standards. In a competitive market, schools have an interest in demonstrating to parents that they provide high-quality education. The rapidly expansion of the private sector will create opportunities for non-profit or for-profit private certifiers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, as The Economist highlights, there are low-cost ways to provide parents with the information they need:

In a joint study by the World Bank, Harvard University and Punjab’s government, parents in some villages were given report cards showing the test scores of their children and the average for schools nearby, both public and private. A year later participating villages had more children in school and their test scores in maths, English and Urdu were higher than in comparable villages where the cards were not distributed. The scheme was very cheap, and the improvement in results larger than that from some much pricier interventions, such as paying parents to send their children to school.

In a corresponding editorial, The Economist calls on the governments of poor countries to “boost” private education through school vouchers “or get out of the way.” The editorial also argues that “ideally” the governments should “regulate schools to ensure quality” and “run public exams to help parents make informed choices” but also observes that “governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be able to these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not doing them at all.” Indeed

Rather than lobby the often-corrupt and/or incompetent Third World governments, the best thing NGOs could do to improve education would be to grant scholarships directly to the poor and provide private certification and/or expert reviews of schools. If we want to ensure that even the world’s poorest children have access to a quality education, schools should be held directly accountable to parents empowered with the means to choose a school and the information to choose wisely. 

(First posted at Cato-at-Liberty.)

12 Responses to Why the World’s Poor Choose to Pay Private School Tuition

  1. matthewladner says:


  2. pdexiii says:

    I will keep saying this every time you post an article like this:
    Our school’s test scores are fair, our GreatSchools rating not good, but our middle school graduates not only graduate from high school on time, but are quite vocal about the foundation they received from us that made high school successful for them. This is why we have wait lists year after year; families are satisfied with the product we provide, and share that satisfaction with others.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure where you think we disagree. I don’t want a single rating system because none is perfect and people have different preferences. Ideally, there would be multiple different orgs providing certification and/or expert review.

      • pdexiii says:

        Exactly; ultimately it has to be the parents having as much information as possible to make the best decisions.

  3. Mike G says:

    Hi Jason,

    Good post. Generally agree.

    Small thing. In Kenya, the low-cost private schools do typically take the national exams. So too in Uganda. Just learning about Nigeria at this moment, exams are more state-by-state it seems.

    In fact in Kenya, because the low-cost privates have higher test scores, a fairly new (and bitterly contested) policy is that kids from gov’t schools are given an advantage in high school placement. It would be equivalent to penalizing a kid who went to a gritty Bronx Catholic School in applying to Stuyvesant.

    But you’re right that some in the int’l aid movement care more about inputs than outputs. Example – requiring university certified teachers. That cost more, but without any difference in learning outcomes for kids.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    In a just world, Tooley and Dixon would have the ear of presidents and Checker Finn would . . . well, let’s not go there.

    Consider this: their work caused Milton to change his mind. Not many can say that. Personally I continue to hold the position Mikton staked out in his 1955 article, that there is a principled case for government subsidies to education as long as parents have school choice; but Milton backed away from that view in response to Tooley and Dixon’s work.

  5. Tunya Audain says:

    Education Choice As Family Policy

    With Education Savings Accounts getting more focus from policy-makers and legislators in our Western world — and with parallel stories about families in developing countries choosing affordable private schools, it’s timely that education choice as family policy be taken off the back burner. We should see some upfront attention on the matter of family policy — education-wise and for the sake of strengthening the family unit.

    No one has articulated this need better than John E Coons — way before ESAs and affordable small private schools. Here is his quote from 2002 — http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2002/02/01/school-choice-family-policy-john-e-coons

    “There are a lot of benign effects of school choice but, for me, choice is family policy. It is one of the most important things we could possibly do as therapy for the institution of the family, for which we have no substitute.

    The relationship between the parent and child is very damaged if the parent loses all authority over the child for six hours a day, five days a week, and over the content that is put into the child’s mind.
    What must it be like for people who have raised their children until they’re five years old, and suddenly, in this most important decision about their education, they have no say at all? They’re stripped of their sovereignty over their child.

    And what must it be like for the child who finds that his parents don’t have any power to help him out if he doesn’t like the school? We are always complaining about the lack of responsibility in low-income families. But, the truth is, we have taken the authority away from them in this most important aspect of their child’s life. And then we rail at them for being rotten parents.

    It’s a shame that there are no social science studies on the effect of choicelessness on the family. If you are stripped of power–kept out of the decision-making loop –you are likely to experience degeneration of your own capacity to be effective, because you have nothing to do. If you don’t have any responsibilities, you get flabby. And what we have are flabby families at the bottom end of the income scale.”

    Even NGOs and private donors wishing to help poor children should adopt this policy and find ways to earmark funding to parents. The World Bank in some early report identified “elite capture” as one of the biggest problems sabotaging good intentions to help the poor.

  6. Tunya Audain says:

    Sending The ESA Message To South Africa

    This is the story:

    “Report exposes abuse of school money – August 8, 2015
    Johannesburg – An explosive forensic report on alleged corruption at Glenvista High is understood to show how high-profile members of the school governing body managed to pull off a R1.9-million “heist” of school money.” http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/gauteng/report-exposes-abuse-of-school-money-1.1897376#.Vceea51VhHw

    Appropriate or not, this is a comment I made to someone who sarcastically said, “Fraud 101 should be on the curriculum.”

    Heads Up On School Corruption

    1 Intent of schools is education of the young

    2 Any deviation of that goal is “corruption”

    3 Whistleblowing 101 should be on curriculum

    4 The intended funds should be placed in Education Savings Accounts in the parents’ banks and used for certified education services according to family choice

    5 KPMG or similar third party could be a qualified agency to monitor such ESA project

  7. Duncan Frissell says:

    Many of us feel the same way about our government schools. We could have cheaper private schools too if more parents knew how desperately they need them. What was Marva Collins’ starting tuition I wonder.

  8. […] are way more desperate than those living below the poverty line in the U.S. The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick recently wrote about James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the […]

  9. […] are way more desperate than those living below the poverty line in the U.S. The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick recently wrote about James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the […]

  10. […] are way more desperate than those living below the poverty line in the U.S. The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick recently wrote about James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the […]

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