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Paying for school on $2 a day

When James Tooley first discovered low-cost private schools for the poor in urban slums and rural areas in India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and China, aid agency officials and local government administrators did not receive the news warmly.

Most flat out denied that such schools existed. Even if they do exist, said the experts, they can’t possibly be any good. School owners that run for-profit schools in shantytowns and poor villages are just exploiting poor communities. Their teachers are untrained and poorly paid. Their buildings are cramped, dark and filthy. Worst of all, kids don’t learn anything there—they come out “half-baked,” one education official told him.

But what Tooley found, in four years of site visits and a five-country study described in his book The Beautiful Tree, throws a wrench in this familiar-sounding reasoning. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of students in the impoverished areas he studied were in fact attending these allegedly nonexistent schools, even when public options were available.

Why on earth would a poor family just getting by on the meager wages they earned fishing or pulling rickshaws choose to pay between $1.50 and $7 a month to send their children to private schools if they didn’t have to? In some isolated villages, the closest public school was still too far away, or impossible to get to during the rainy or cold seasons. For other families, the hidden costs of “free” education outweighed the very low cost of schools in their communities (in Kenya, for example, one parent described high up-front costs for a building maintenance fund and two complete school uniforms required by the public schools in her area).

Most reasons that the parents gave for their choice had to do with what the World Bank calls the “short route” to accountability (as opposed to the “long route” which works through the political process). Because school owners’ profits and reputations in the community depend directly on whether parents are happy with their children’s schooling, they paid attention to parents’ complaints. Because teachers in private schools can be fired, they were less likely to be late, idle or absent.

The most surprising thing to those of us who harbor prejudices (hidden even to ourselves?) that illiterate, unschooled parents can’t possibly know more than education experts, is that these parents were making smart, informed decisions. Not that the private schools were perfect—far from it: many of the schools Tooley visited were tucked away in poorly lit, dilapidated, smelly buildings without toilets, and teachers there did lack government training certificates, and were paid less than in the public system. But Tooley found that in low-cost private schools, across the board, classroom sizes were smaller, and teachers were much more likely to be found teaching during an unannounced visit. They are also achieving better results: the students in private schools outperformed their public school peers in nearly every subject they were tested in.

Tooley’s is just one study, and this post has given only a very general outline of its findings. (For a more in-depth look, buy the highly readable and entertaining book, or delve into the academic papers). But one lesson seems clear: Tooley’s work should open the door to more open-minded research on how private schools for the poor can play a part in achieving education for all.

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  1. Georg Neumann wrote:

    Thanks for highlighting this book. It really illustrates the power of being able to hold the school your kids are in accountable – up the degree that you are willing to pay a fee for having this power.

    Lack of good governance in education, including hidden costs and corruption (as can be seen by Transparency International’s report on education in seven African countries) and poor employment of existing accountability mechanisms such as Parent-Teacher Associations, are still undermining the system and these private schools are a direct result of it.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:12 am | Permalink
  2. In Cambodia, at least in the provinces, many families don’t send their kids to public schools because they can’t afford the extra costs: uniforms, materials, etc. The teachers regular take unscheduled days off. They only teach for 2 or 3 hours a day, and kids are running in and out of the class for part of that time. Teachers even have the kids come to the homes and harvest their rice for “extra credit.” Not much real learning takes place, so when it’s time to graduate most people who “pass” the final exams have bought the answers (from the teachers via intermediaries). I can’t see how they’d be any worse off with a private school, as long as it was accredited (so they could take the test and attempt to qualify for university).

    With this perspective, I’ve wondered about NGOs that build schools knowing they’ll be run by the government in the end. Why not build more private schools? But for some reason they (i.e., Room to Read) strictly avoid that route. They won’t even create a library for a private school that’s working well.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  3. Andrew W wrote:

    Great post. PEAS ( are using that exact model to provide private, low-fee, quality secondary education to rural Uganda – check it out!

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  4. Yes! I am also finding the same thing in rural Uganda. Uganda Rural Development and Training ( has been running a private Girls School and now two additional local schools (primary and secondary) that provide co-curriculum–Agricultural and Visionary Leadership skills as well as the basic Uganda academic curriculum for kids whose families live on $1 to $2 a day. The parents help pay the teachers’ salaries at the “public” schools. These are areas where the government won’t provide a school until the locals have proven that they can maintain one. The real breakthrough at the URDT schools is that kids do “Back Home” projects with their families, teaching their parents and siblings what they’ve learned about agriculture, sanitation, nutrition and having a vision for the family’s future. Average family incomes increase by 20% as a result–while the kids are still in school. For more, see

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  5. One thing I have noticed about low cost schools is that they are more likely to provide the vocational training that their students need. The training material provided by educators from the “top of the pyramid” tends to focus on the training needed for jobs that are not available in the countries where these students are. I like to use the words “vocational training” instead of “education” so that I communicate that the students are learning what they need to know.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  6. KG wrote:

    Great post. Some of the best entrepreneurs at our MFI in the DR were the middle aged women who were using their microloan to run small, private community schools. In several cases, they essentially run their own mini non profit, breaking even at the end of the loan term, but paying themselves a meager wage, plus a few teachers. I think of one woman in particular who was well educated, had fallen on hard times, but the mini school has become her life’s work. Good to see this happening elsewhere. I sense a positive realization ripple across the MF community when they start counting the numerous clients that are making this work.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Jane Reitsma wrote:

    Thanks for bringing this issue to people’s attention. I have often found it frustrating that people assume if a country has free universal primary education it means that all children are able to attend state run schools (a challenge with the universal primary education MDG?).

    The Ugandan government has now moved on to free secondary education when in fact a very small percentage of Ugandans have access to free primary education! The community I work with in rural Uganda has 4 private primary schools for the 1 public school. And the public school was still overcrowded.

    Mind you the same problem exists at both public and private schools- the teachers often don’t show up because they often don’t get paid.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  8. This is the case in many parts of Afghanistan, too. However,one of the biggest problems here is a shortage of teachers –in both private and public schools– with at least a primary school education behind them. NGO-run and community-based schools often attract more skilled teachers than public schools because the pay is more reliable (as Georg noted, this is a problem of poor governance), but even with that incentive, there are just too few teachers overall. And to train more, you need training programs. In Afghanistan, that means –gasp!– aid for education.

    Additionally, I wonder if private education is good for weak states in the long-term –if something like that can even be evaluated.

    Public primary education is a fundamental link between people and government, and schools are where civic education most often begins. (If you think weak states are a good thing, please come to Kabul. I will show you around.)

    I’m not saying private schools are bad. On the contrary. Here, as in other developing countries, they are a vital part of the picture. In Afghanistan specifically, studies have shown they are less likely to be attacked by insurgents. (Which is obviously a problem of a brutal insurgency with no regard for civilian life, and not of public schools. Yet, while the war carries on, kids still need to be educated.)

    Let’s not be oblivious to the potential dark side of private schools for the poor, or to trade-offs involved. Private schools may displace the one link impoverished, remote communities have to weak central governments, and they may promote more illiberal values than government-run schools. Think: mono-ethnic history, religious extremism (Pakistan’s extremist madrassas are, after all, technically private schools), and xenophobia.

    Of course, public schools can do all of these negative things too, and many undoubtedly do, but private schools do operate with less oversight.

    As with everything, we should pay close attention to local circumstances.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  9. Point of clarification on the madrassas: I mean the ones that actually are just extremist religious schools, not those that are militant training camps disguised as religious schools. Militant training camps for children are obviously a different animal altogether.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  10. gaddeswarup wrote:

    There seem to be some follow up projects by James Tooley and colloborators:
    I wonder whether somebody can appraise us of these.

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  11. Iris wrote:

    This is an interesting example of how rational choice/incentives for people in developing countries may SEEM irrational/uneducated to development experts, but they are actually perfectly sound given the circumstances. As long as we fail to understand those kind of incentives/drivers, we’ll never get aid right I think…

    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  12. Public primary education is a fundamental link between people and government, and schools are where civic education most often begins.
    But often not in a good way. States and religious bodies are the biggest providers of schooling because they want to control the belief formation of students (pdf). People who are against private schooling are typically so because they want to eliminate rival belief sets in education. (The claim that it is about “equality” is a nonsense; government schools vary enormously and inevitably in quality because, given a standard model, the demographics particular schools draw on will profoundly affect quality.)

    Weak states are typically bad regulators and poor providers. A regulator who is also a provider suffers a conflict of interest that makes them a worse regulator AND a worse provider than they otherwise would be. What is an endemic problem in developed countries schools is hardly likely to be less of one in developing countries.

    That private and unregistered schools do best is itself an indicator of the problems of governments regulator-plus-providers being compromised in both functions.

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  13. geckonomist wrote:

    @Andrew W:
    “Great post. PEAS ( are using that exact model to provide private, low-fee, quality secondary education to rural Uganda !”

    No they are not. they are using donor money to undercut real private initiative and pricing non-donor supported schools out of the market.

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  14. geckonomist wrote:

    “Average family incomes increase by 20% as a result–while the kids are still in school.”

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  15. solarafrica wrote:

    great post – where there’s a will there’s a way. A humble example of a community private school:

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  16. Chris Prottas wrote:

    I agree with the general enthusiasm for independent schools accountable to parents. I do have two points to be made based on the experience of private/non-profit schools in India. First, local market research (series of qualitative interviews) has shown that the “market” for education is not highly functional. Many parents equate quality with price, and will send their child to the most expensive school they can. Otherwise, they might judge a school’s quality by the amount of English the child speaks at home. While parents do realize that public schools are inferior to private schools, parents do not have good tools for sorting between different private school options. Presumably, the market would be more robust and cost-competitive if there were cost-neutral school performance (or student improvement) metrics accessible for the parents: it would certainly be better than now.

    Second, while private education has the potential to greatly help many in India, I disagree with Mr Tooley that it is a solution for India’s poorest. 70% of India’s population has a per capita daily income of $ 1/ day or less. For many of these families, even school fees above 30-50 Rs a month are too much.

    In order to reach these students, either NGOs or the government needs to provide schooling free of charge (either directly or through vouchers).

    Private schools are truly important. However, poor countries should not be seen as markets for private-school advocates to exploit, but rather as societies with variable abilities to pay that may or may not be able to pay for an education. Private school have a place, but the emphasis should be on increasing school choice, school autonomy, and information on performance while ensuring access.

    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  17. Arely Briones wrote:

    This is an outstandingly accurate post. I am in total agreement that many parents living in these unfortunate conditions are making informed choices. Our school is an example of this, though the learning environment is much better. It costs about $10 a month (costs in dollars do depend on exchange rates). The school adheres to National standards, and kids learn Art, English, Music, Computer skills, etc. Parents with more than one child get reductions. It does not COST $100 per child, though. Every single child at Susana Wesley receives an automatic scholarship that reduces the payment to this, and our top students receive up to a 100% scholarship. The help and support of many kind and loving people make this possible, and we are very grateful for it. I am personally very proud of our children. I think they deserve all the love and support in the world. In 2009, the school was awarded a top 10 city wide ranking after the annual academic examinations of all schools in the country. We were ranked the 9th best school in a city with over one thousand schools in operation, and placed within the top 5% of all the schools in Chihuahua, a state larger than Texas. Anaprans are people who gave up everything in search for a better life. Given their situation, Anaprans may have been brave to hope -but they are right to believe in themselves and in their future. For all their needs and wants, their academic achievement surpassed that of many socially exclusive and well funded institutions. To me, our students’ accomplishments demonstrate that they are the true Mexican elite.

    ~Teacher Arely

    Posted February 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  18. Arely Briones wrote:

    Our school is in Anapra, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Juarez, Mexico.
    Please visit our website!

    Posted February 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  19. It is great to see the enthusiasm for this space. Professor Tooley has been a relentless advocate of these schools and has turned on many people and organizations (including ours) to working with these schools. In Hyderabad, India, Orient Global is working with a franchise-like model to serve these schools. Gray Ghost Ventures has founded the Indian School Finance Company to provide loans to help these schools grow. Gray Matters Capital is designing a school rating tool and attempting to draw more education service providers into applying their offerings to these schools (which we refer to as Affordable Private Schools = APS). Feel free to go to each of these websites for more information. In addition, we are working on launching a participative website dedicated to this sector. It is not yet formally launched, but I encourage you all to visit in the coming weeks.

    Posted March 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  20. Just to be clear, Gray Ghost Ventures and Gray Matters Capital are the organizations with which I am affiliated. I mentioned Orient Global in response to an earlier post asking about the status of the projects listed on the University of Newcastle website.

    Posted March 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

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