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.

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