June 16, 2004 1 min read
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Choice Abroad

James Tooley is out to defeat the notion that universal education for poor children in developing countries hinges solely on the expansion of public schooling.

To the contrary, says the British researcher, private education is already playing a positive role in the lives of many of the poorest families in Asia and Africa. And it will continue to do so, in his view, if government policies and aid programs don’t undermine the private efforts.

At a recent conference on school choice worldwide held at the Cato Institute in Washington, Mr. Tooley called his research results potentially explosive because so much education aid to needy countries is predicated on public schooling as the solution.

“The view of everybody in the development world is that private schools in poor areas don’t exist,” especially fee- supported ones, said Mr. Tooley, an education policy professor at the University of Newcastle in England. His work on private schools in impoverished areas of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and India is financed by the John Templeton Foundation, which promotes study of religion, character-building, and open markets.

Mr. Tooley said he has taken research teams street by street through slum neighborhoods, counting schools. They are typically very modest enterprises, the educational equivalent of mom-and-pop stores. In the Kibera section of Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, the researchers counted 71 private schools with 12,100 students, according to Mr. Tooley.

Equally important, they found preliminary evidence that the private schools on average may do a better job than the public schools open to children from the same areas. Focus groups in Hyderabad, India, for example, indicate that parents are often more satisfied with the private schools, where they believe teachers and administrators are more accountable, Mr. Tooley said.

But other scholars are far from sure about the contributions of private schools. It’s too early to judge the effect of Kenya’s 2003 law establishing universal public primary education, for example, said Emiliana Vegas, an education economist at the World Bank.

She added that while fee-supported private schools are well worth investigating, Mr. Tooley’s research fell short. “My concern is there are a lot of assertions made with very little hard data,” Ms. Vegas said.

—Bess Keller

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week


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