School for $6 a month

It's not that I didn't believe James Tooley's books and articles asserting that an astonishing number of poor children in developing countries are being decently (and sometimes superbly) educated by a little-noticed army of low-budget private schools that receive no government support and, indeed, are paid for by those kids' own parents.

But it hadn't really sunk into my consciousness, perhaps because others scoffed at these claims. Big "foreign aid" and education funders generally ignored this entire education sector, journalists and analysts paid it scant heed and governments, perhaps embarrassed by their own failure to do right by these youngsters, acted as if it weren't really happening.

Now, however, I've seen examples of this phenomenon with my own eyes in the slums of Hyderabad, India, where Tooley (a British education scholar on leave from the University of Newcastle) is both learning even more about it and trying to strengthen it via the "Aristotle" project he leads with backing from a New Zealand-born, Singapore-based, tycoon.

I confess: I was impressed--and slightly sheepish, too, considering I've lived and traveled in India and other "third world" countries over many years and worked in the education field forever. Yet, until now I had allowed my gaze to pass over signs of the presence of hundreds of these schools without really noticing them, much less seeking to understand how they work.

In America my efforts to widen education options and promote school choice for poor kids, like the efforts of most U.S. reformers, have always assumed that, at day's end, the government must pay for this. Perhaps that's true in the Western world, perhaps it's not. But elsewhere on the planet, I can now attest, poor families are paying for it themselves and education entrepreneurs are responding to their demand (and their governments' failure) by starting, managing, and growing such schools.

Most of them occupy sketchy facilities, sans playgrounds, labs, libraries, and fancy technology. Many teachers are themselves just high school graduates. The kids bring their own lunches. Parents provide transportation and go to the bazaar for textbooks and uniforms. Sports and extracurricular activities are scarce to nonexistent. Neither schools nor families have any money to spare.

But teaching and learning are occurring in those cramped and sometimes ill-lit classrooms. Eager youngsters, prodded by determined parents, are drinking in whatever knowledge and skills their books and teachers can provide. And while besting nearby government schools on state tests is no high accolade in places like Andhra Pradesh, most of these private schools are doing that at astonishingly low costs.

Tuitions in the Hyderabad schools I visited last week range from $2 to $6 per child per month (i.e. about $25 to $75 annually)--and historically that's been the schools' sole source of revenue. (Those joining the Aristotle project are now getting some help with teacher training, English-language curriculum, and computer labs.)

On some blocks, once Tooley trained my eyes to see them, I spotted two or three such schools, maybe half a dozen in a single small, slum neighborhood, each serving 200-1500 youngsters. His research team counted a thousand of these schools in just one section of Hyderabad, and he guesstimates that India's villages and cities contain easily 300,000. Nor is India alone. Tooley has found the same phenomenon in China, the Philippines, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and many other lands.

What accounts for it? Four elements are key. First, a vacuum created by government's failure to deliver acceptable free schooling to millions of poor children. Second, entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of launching such schools and navigating the shoals that could sink them (red tape, competition, etc.). Third, parents who care enough about their sons' and daughters' futures to dig into their meager pocketbooks to find those few rupees every month. And fourth, instructors in need of the work and willing to teach these kids for monthly wages that range from $35 to maybe twice that.

Let me not romanticize the schools that result. Besides scant resources and cramped facilities, they labor under multiple handicaps. While some are led by awesome education builders, at the helm of others are uninspiring folks for whom the school is basically just a small business.

In India, at least, the government curriculum--which one must master to have a shot at passing the exams that control access to further education and decent jobs--is dreary beyond belief, so devoted to rote, recitation, and formula as to turn even this traditionalist into a visiting constructivist.

At those pay levels, the schools can't hire many teachers with the training and gifts to transform a wan syllabus into exciting lessons. Classes are sometimes large. The absence of labs makes it hard to teach science. And the dearth of libraries, technology, and connectivity makes it difficult to link these youngsters to the planet's boundless knowledge.

Still, lots of needy kids are getting a decent education at an astoundingly low cost in spite of their governments' failure to provide anything of the sort. And there is mounting interest among philanthropists and investors in trying to turn this indigenous phenomenon into something bigger and better.

In Hyderabad alone at least three other projects besides Tooley's are seeking to develop these schools, sometimes as a charitable endeavor, sometimes as a potential business opportunity leading to large "chains" of schools--equipped with more resources and educational capacities than today's schools--and sometimes building a "franchise" model, not unlike U.S. "education management organizations."

Among the backers of such ventures we find the globe-girdling William Jefferson Clinton. Yes, him--the 42nd president, husband of the secretary of state designate and founder of Clinton Global Initiative, which has almost 200 "commitments" in the education field scattered about the planet, including a joint venture with Deutsche Bank (and Grey Ghost Ventures and New Globe Schools) to develop low-cost private schools in Kenya and India, beginning with Hyderabad.

I'm struck by how all this is happening almost without reference to public policy. These education entrepreneurs, both small- and large-scale, mainly want government to continue ignoring them. At the primary level, so far as I can tell, at least in Andhra Pradesh (of which Hyderabad is the capital), it isn't even necessary to get a government license to open a private school, nor does one's school receive any kind of aid.

It's different at the secondary level, where getting one's school "recognized" by the state is advantageous to graduates and expected by many parents. The approval process entails jumping through multiple regulatory hoops. But, as always in the developing world, there are ways around that, too.

Even as the "international competitiveness" literature and U.S. political and economic debates abound with talk of how countries like India are eating our lunches and endangering our future prosperity due to the stellar performance of their education systems, the fact is that these lands (like ours) actually have several education systems operating at once.

At the high end, the fancy private schools attended by upper-class kids and the intensely competitive top-of-the-line postsecondary institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology are indeed first-rate. (IIT admissions make getting into Harvard look easy.) For the poor, however, educational opportunities are dismal and government schooling, though free, is often dreadful--even when the teachers bother to turn up.

But rather than abandon hope for their kids, millions of poor parents are turning to the private sector, which is responding in at least two ways. The first, unveiled to incredulous Western eyes by Tooley a decade or so ago, is indigenous and small-scale, albeit widespread. The second, just getting started and fascinating to behold, is sophisticated, multinational and could turn out to be very large indeed.

This article also appeared today on Forbes.com.

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