If you go to the poorest parts of the world, in the dirtiest slums, far away from any government infrastructure, you will find schools. You will see class rooms with very active participation by students and dedicated teachers. You will find dues-paying parents. That’s right. The very poorest people in the world, whose material standard of living is a small fraction of the American poverty line, pay out-of-pocket for their children’s schooling.
James Tooley writes all about this phenomenon in his wonderful book “The Beautiful Tree”. He recently did an Econtalk podcast. You can get a general outline of the book from the podcast, but the book really fleshes out the details. It really tells an incredible story. (It’s a mere $2 on Amazon for the Kindle, and there are used copies selling for a penny, so expense should be no issue here. And it's available on audiobook if that's what you prefer.)
Tooley has done quite a lot of on-the-ground work in the 3rd world. He went to China, India, Ghana, and many other countries, and he found the same thing everywhere. Government officials told him repeatedly that he would not find any “private schools” for the poor. Some insisted that the very concept was a contradiction in terms; private schools, he was told, are only for the rich. Officials in every country said the same thing. But he found the same thing everywhere: private schools attended by the children of dues-paying parents. The very poor denizens of these very poor countries were *not* being served by their governments. There were government schools, for sure, but the teachers did not teach. Government teachers, Tooley found, were paid the same whether they taught or not. They often slept on the job, or taught a quick perfunctory lesson and then read the newspaper or drank tea for the rest of the day. Often they were totally absent. Or they forced the children to do menial chores for their (the teachers’) personal benefit. The teachers were a powerful political constituency, so it was impossible to impose any kind of discipline or accountability on them. Many children attended the government schools, but they didn’t learn much.
The private schools, on the other hand, were accountable to the parents. If a private school failed to teach, the parents would pull their children out. Teachers were accountable to the head master, who was often forced to fire teachers who were lazy or who had problems with attendance. The students of these schools were better educated than the students of government schools. Wherever Tooley was able to collect data on the performance of the students, the private schools typically produced the higher-performing students. And remember these aren’t swanky, high-end private schools like you would see in America. These are tiny schools in dirty slums, with classes held in re-purposed chicken-sheds. The “selection effect” that you’d see in America (where the kids attending private school are probably smarter in the first place) just isn’t present in the poorest parts of the world.
I want to be a little bit cautious about drawing the obvious conclusions from this book. A model of education that is prevalent in the third world probably has limited value for a rich society like ours. But it should certainly force us to re-think our assumptions. Rather than trying to hold this up as some kind of “proof” of libertarian principles, I want to hold it up as a criticism of progressive ideas about education.
The typical progressive position is that poor families can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket for their children’s schooling. If government didn’t provide schools for these children, they would not go to school at all. Even disregarding the expense issue, private schools for the poor wouldn’t work for other reasons. Private schools have an incentive to slash costs as much as possible and effectively cheat their students. Parents have a difficult time monitoring the effectiveness of private schools. The parents don’t themselves have any expertise in education, so they have no idea whether their children are being effectively educated or not. An attempt to privatize education for the poor would leave us with an under-educated underclass, who have been robbed blind by “for-profit” schools. Tooley’s research in the third world shows us that every aspect of the progressive-left position is false.
The parents in poor countries, who are in fact paying for their children’s education, are far poorer than the poorest American. While schooling was sometimes a significant household expense for these parents, it was manageable, especially considering that the education was well worth the cost. The profit motive actually keeps institutions honest, quite contrary to the standard progressive position. Private schools know that parents will pull their children out of school if they underperform. If they try to cheat their customers, those customers will go elsewhere. This level of accountability is actually absent in government schools, which unfortunately aren’t threatened with the “exit option.” The progressive position is actually quite backwards: accountability *only* exists in the private schools and is absent in public schools. And parents know quite well whether their children are actually learning, even if they don’t know anything about the topics their children are studying. In Tooley’s conversations with parents of private school children, he found that they knew pretty clearly whether their children were *actually* learning English or not (for example). These parents, who are on average less educated and have less access to information than even the poorest Americans, were very savvy about rating their children’s schools. And, once again, the private schools outperformed the government schools. The profit motive creates strong accountability, and this turns out to matter a great deal. You can see it in the final product.
Our institutions aren’t *quite* as bad as those in very poor countries. Average public schools, even bad public schools, are reasonably conducive to learning. I doubt if the wholesale flouting of one’s teaching duties is seen here, at least not nearly to the degree that Tooley and others have observed in the third world. So it might be harder for private schools to improve upon government schools here in America. But we can at least slay some myths about private schools being unobtainable for the poor (clearly they’re not), or how the profit motive is inherently corrupting (clearly it’s not). I don’t want to overplay my hand and say Tooley’s research definitively proves the libertarian position. But I think it’s perfectly fair to say that his research severely discredits the progressive position. If you thought that something was totally impractical or even impossible, and someone shows you that it actually exists, and is widespread, and outperforms your preferred institutional arrangements by a wide margin, then it’s time to reexamine your assumptions. Once in a while you have to step back and say, “This piece of evidence is a complete surprise to me. I would never have imagined it. Something is wrong with my worldview.”
There is a sad note in Tooley’s book. The progressive position on education is so deeply entrenched. It’s effectively a religion. Most international anti-poverty activists (think employees of the World Health Organization or the world bank) admitted that there were problems with the government schools, but rather than allow for alternatives they insisted that all efforts be focused on getting those schools to perform better. Tooley found a working model for education, a way to bring education to the poor. He found it in the wild, too. Anti-poverty activists were almost completely uninterested in his research and hostile to his conclusions. A reasonable person might have said, “Here is something that works. Let’s make it easier to open a school.” And a reasonable policy response might have been, say, removing some regulations on private schools. Some such regulations were quite onerous, and the government schools didn’t comply with them anyway, and non-compliant schools could simply pay a bribe to avoid closure, and (most importantly) the students were better off with a regulation-flouting private school than with no school at all. But no. The overwhelming response was, “We just need to keep pouring money and effort into getting the governments schools to work better.” When government institutions are really bad, citizens attempt to solve things with markets. Sometimes that works well, and Tooley’s research gives us rich examples. Rather than embracing a working solution, education “activists” effectively told poor third-world citizens, “Go solve an impossible public choice problem. Once you do that, you can have the decent education your children deserve. No fair doing a simple, easily implemented end-run around this impossible problem. I must insist you endure shitty institutions until you fix them.” This attitude is especially sinister when a simple private solution is available.