The poor are voting with their feet for private schools

Experts must stop supporting public schools that even the poor don’t want for their children


If education must reach the poor, the only way forward is to remove all regulatory barriers to the setting up of private schools and granting them operational freedom. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
If education must reach the poor, the only way forward is to remove all regulatory barriers to the setting up of private schools and granting them operational freedom. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The problem with public schools, one is often told, is the lack of sufficient administrative supervision required to bring accountability to the system. Funds to aid learning are often misappropriated, children’s learning outcome is abysmally poor, and teachers that sleep and make merry in their classes are far too common in Indian public schools. It is not as if researchers on education do not recognize these problems, but the solutions they offer are often simply wrongheaded.

With the release of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 last week, the chorus to improve teaching standards and accountability in public schools has once again begun. Even as near universal primary school enrolment has been achieved, learning levels continue to stagnate at low levels or fall. Given this, one would expect the government to crack the whip; but teacher attendance in government schools has actually dropped. Amidst all this, private school enrolment continues to rise year after year.

Despite such clear failure of public education, more spending on the right kind of it (concentrating on outcomes) is proposed as the solution. Yet, the same troubles that plague the public school system are far less common in private schools that spend fewer funds. The reason for the vast gap in the quality of public and private schools lies in the incentives driving public and private schools.

The administrators of public schools are not accountable to parents, and thus lack any incentive to improve the services they provide. Each time education experts call upon the government to enforce accountability in public schools by creating the right kind of administrative structure, it should be pointed that the problem does not lie with the administrative structure but with the government itself. It is in the very nature of bureaucrats to be corrupt and inefficient.

It is exactly such government failure that has wasted precious years of children enrolled in public schools. Not surprisingly, many parents even in low-income households have chosen to put their children in private schools to escape the public schooling system. Private schools, which are accountable to parents who pay fees, and are free to move their children to competing schools, are far more accountable and efficient compared to the public schooling system.

Some education experts even understand this, but the immediate question that follows is if the poor can afford to pay for private schools. And the answer often assumed to this question is that private schools are beyond the reach of poor households, thus warranting state investment in education.

The Beautiful Tree, written by James Tooley, is one work that refutes this common belief, and gives brilliant insight into how low-cost private schools have mushroomed to serve poor households at a low price. Tooley, through his extensive tour across the developing world, shows that given the inefficiency of public schools, poor parents choose to enrol their kids in low-cost private schools. Often, thousands of such private schools exist even without the knowledge of local public authorities.

Education experts, of course, have complained that these private schools do not meet desirable quality standards. But if public schools were to offer better quality education at a cheaper price or even for free, why would poor parents choose to send their children to private schools? Experts have cited reasons for this, except of course the basic failure of public schools to tackle even the problem of absentee teachers, including the ignorance of poor parents to decide on quality.

The Right to Education Act was the culmination of the intellectual arrogance of the very same experts. The facilities required from schools through the Act (including playgrounds, teacher qualification, sports equipment, etc.) are beyond the budget of low-cost private schools which in turn has led to their shutting down in thousands. The RTE has increased the burden on low-cost private schools which are already at the mercy of rent-seeking authorities which adds to the cost borne by poor households.

If education must reach the poor, the only way forward is to remove all regulatory barriers to the setting up of private schools and granting them operational freedom. This will help more poor households to afford low-cost, better quality private education. Given the absolute folly of their do-good policies, one is left to hope that the education experts come to their senses sooner rather than later.

Natural Order runs every Monday, with a libertarian take on the world of economics and finance.

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