Is Equity at Stake in Private Schooling? (Part 1 of 2)

For those watching the educational development media, the rising clamor around “school choice for the poor” has been difficult to miss. The argument goes like this: “There are many low-cost private schools in the world that do better than public schools, and the poorest of the poor are using these schools—so let’s support them.”

In a November article in the Spectator, British educator and Cato Institute scholar James Tooley once again raised the case for private education, arguing that educational rights activist Malala Yousafzai is in fact arguing for private education, not public education. His contention, which was unsupported by any interview with Malala herself, was subject to considerable criticism. That Tooley’s pro-private school piece made its way, openly unsubstantiated, into a major media source like the Spectator, evidences the editorial board’s sense of public interest in the private school advocacy movement.

Tooley is at the spearhead of a major attack on public schools worldwide, an attack driven by disappointing public sector performance, high teacher absenteeism, and frequent reports of corruption and scandal. These proponents of private schools, often backed by libertarian NGOs such as the Cato Institute, argue for a wide array of measures to promote private school alternatives, with options ranging from simply tolerating the existence of private schools to fully disbanding public education and replacing it with private education.

In this post and the following, we will look at private schooling from the vantage-point of equity.

Equity: outputs, not inputs

A central refrain amongst the many justifications for private schooling centers on equity: Private schools give kids a better shot than what they would have otherwise, so taking away public schools decreases equity.

In education, “equity” refers not to making all schools look the same (which would be “equality”) but to helping all children have the same opportunity to succeed. Certainly, beautiful, well-resourced schools and strong teachers increase the odds of success, but, as comparisons of international test results between expensive U.S. schools and their Asian counterparts have shown us, bigger inputs don’t always produce bigger results. In educational development, equity—not equality—is the goal.

But do private schools increase equity? Many have argued long and hard from exactly the opposite perspective.

Private schools as stratifying agents

The arguments against private schooling vary, but most intersect in one way or another with the central premise that private schools lead to increased stratification in society. While no two public schools are the same, inasmuch as they reflect the society in which they are geographically located—thus the de facto “re-segregation” found in many inner-city schools—private schools further stratify the student population. In 2010, Alegre and Ferrer, two researchers at Universitat Auton ma de Barcelona, used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test to argue that the more market-driven a nation’s educational system is, the more stratified it becomes. Rather than acting as a melting pot, drawing together students from diverse social classes and racial or religious backgrounds, private schooling has the opposite effect, self-sorting students by the same variables that mark the boundaries of diversity. Those arguing against the proliferation of private schools argue that economic classes cluster together by schools, with students’ families following their friends, leaving private schools to those unable to afford private education.

Evidence like that produced by Alegre and Ferrer points to the reality that, within a nation’s boundaries, private schools allow inequity to persist and, as private schooling grows, the gaps between the educational opportunities for the wealthiest and poorest grows ever wider.

Looking at equity through a national lens reveals difficult realities for private schooling. The international lens, however, paints a different picture.

Private schools and international equity

Ironically, while private schools can increase stratification nationally, they can also function to decrease stratification internationally. Elite private schools in economically-disadvantaged nations often offer world-class education, with students performing on-par with their counterparts in wealthier nations. While not all children can earn a world-class education in developing countries, at least some of the nation’s young are able to earn the caliber of education needed to prepare globally-competitive professionals.

Test data from Latin America and elsewhere illustrate this point. Most private Latin American international schools following the American educational model test their students against U.S. schools using NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP). In spring of 2012, students in grades 8-10 in these private schools—in a region generally lagging the United States in international comparisons—scored at or above the average scores achieved by U.S. schools. This outperformance is consistent with historical trends.

Elite Latin American private schools

United States norm group

Latin American Private school outperformance

Grade

Math

Reading

Writing

Math

Reading

Writing

Math

Reading

Writing

8

235

222

223

235

222

221

0

0

2

9

239

226

223

236

223

222

3

3

1

10

240

224

223

237

224

223

3

0

0

Ideally, the public sector in Latin America would provide internationally-equitable educational quality as well. However, until this happens, private schools provide a mechanism for providing on-par or above-par educational access for students in these countries.

And the academic equity advantage is not only found in elite schools. Using India and other economically-disadvantaged nations as test cases, Tooley, in his book The Beautiful Treeproduces extensive data from standardized tests to show that even poorly-resourced “low-fee private schools”—schools which cater to families who live in impoverished slums—private schools consistently outperform public schools, bringing children closer to the performance of peers in privileged nations.

Until significant changes transpire in government schools in Latin America, India, and elsewhere, private schools provide something that government schools do not: access to higher-quality education in economically-disadvantaged nations not provided in government schools.

Equity for all students?

Due to the higher test performance found in private schools which cater to the poor, Tooley asserts that the low-fee private school option, in fact, brings greater educational opportunity, even to “the poorest of the poor”. We’ll examine this claim in our next post.

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Low-Fee Private Schools: An Equity Conundrum (part 2 of 2)

Reading the headlines from India’s educational news, one could understand if educational planners hardly know whether to rejoice or weep.

On one hand, progress is evident. According to World Bank data, primary enrollment has risen to 90% and secondary enrollment to 63%—an overall enrollment growth of 50% since the early 1990s. The 2012 ASER report concluded that school facilities have seen marked improvement over the last three years since the inoduction of India’s Right to Education Act (RTE).

Yet, the situation remains bleak. MIT researchers in 2010 found that teacher absenteeism in India has consistently hovered at 25% for 15 years with no signs of improvement, and classroom productivity fares no better, with 50% of teachers found sleeping, reading the newspaper, or otherwise not teaching. The 2012 ASER report found that reading and mathematics scores have steadily declined over the last three years, and, despite improvements in facilities, 43.5% of rural schools still have no working toilets.

Parents, what would you do if these schools were your “free” option?

Indian parents have long turned to private schools to escape the steady disappointment of India’s public school sector. British educator and India education scholar Geeta Kingdon found in 2007 that growth in the private school sector in India accounted for 96% of all primary enrollment growth between 1993-2002; the 2012 ASER report noted that such schools today account for nearly 40% of India’s enrollment—and the enrollment numbers continue to rise at a rate of 10% annually.

The private sector is a crucial partner in India’s provision of education. Since the introduction of RTE in 2010, this partnership has in many ways been further strengthened. RTE requires that 25% of all seats in private schools be vouchered-out to less-privileged students at no cost to the parents. Low-income parents have queued up at these private schools across the country, hoping to land their child in one of these all-expenses-paid seats.

For the lucky parents who lottery their way into elite private schools, these public-private partnerships offer a new hope at economic advancement. For those who don’t manage to snap up one of these free seats, there are still other options, thanks to low-fee private schools.

LFP schools: Increased academic opportunity for some…

Low-fee private (LFP) schools, avidly promoted by school choice advocates such as James Tooley, offer opportunities for parents at an extraordinarily low cost. Throughout his considerable body of research, Tool continually finds that these fees aren’t just low—they’re super low, designed to be affordable even to families who live in the nation’s burgeoning slums.

The schools, many of which are not registered with the Indian government—despite RTE requirements to do so—offer on-time teachers and on-task classrooms. Their test outputs, as multiple studies have shown, are modestly-to-substantially higher than those of nearby public schools, despite the fact that such schools are often staffed by untrained and minimally-paid teachers.

LFP schools advertise better academic equity, and Indian parents are moving to them in droves, fleeing the unsolved problems in government schools.

…but not for all

A central problem with LFP schools is that, despite their low cost, they remain out of reach for the poorest of the poor. Canadian researcher Prachi Srivastava, who coined the term “low-fee private school”, summarized the research on LFP school affordability in her 2013 book, Low-fee Private Schooling: aggravating equity or mitigating disadvantage? Srivastava concludes that claims of the affordability of LFP schools for the poorest of the poor have been exaggerated.

Some of the most emotionally compelling research on LFP school affordability is offered the 2010 work by Joanna Härmä. Researching the affordability of rural LFP schools in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, Härmä concluded that the school fees, while low, were simply out of reach for the poorest two quintiles of Indian society and that parents chose public schools because they simply couldn’t afford even the lowest-priced LFP schools. She concluded, “No poor families reported LFP schooling as being affordable without ‘cutting their bellies.’”

The continuing research of Srivastava and her colleagues in a growing number of urban slums and poor rural regions around the world has challenged Tooley’s claims to affordability. LFP private schools, while affordable for many of the world’s poor, simply aren’t affordable enough.

An equity conundrum

LFP schools offer a fascinating look into the basic conundrum surrounding lower-cost private schools around the world. It is true that private schools offer parents options for escaping failed government schools: from the moderate out-performance seen in LFP schools to the wild out-performance seen in elite private schools (as discussed in the previous post), private schooling offers children a chance to achieve at higher levels than those found in their local government schools, increasing academic equity in low-income nations by bringing these children closer to their counterparts in high-income nations.

Yet, this opportunity isn’t accessible to all. LFP schools, which cater to the bottom end of the economic spectrum, are unable to fit the budgets of the poorest of the poor. In nations like India, where education is a chief agent for upward mobility, and income disparities between the poor and wealthy continue to rise, the affordability of private schools plays a role in persistent inequities.