Thursday, July 9, 2009

Private Schools for the Poor, Part II

One thing we know: private schools are for the rich. The poor don't have the resources or the knowledge to educate their children.

So we need a system of free, compulsory government education for children. In fact, it's been enshrined as a right by the United Nations.

But James Tooley in The Beautiful Tree tells us that in the Third World the governments are manifestly failing to educate the children of the poor.

And guess what? The poor are doing just fine. Educational entrepreneurs living in the slums are founding and running private schools for the poor that outperform government schools and nearly approach the performance of private schools for the middle class.

These slum schools charge fees and the poor pay them. In addition, the schools typically offer free education to the children of widows and mothers abandoned by their husbands.

This is earth-shattering news. You mean to say that the poor can afford a basic education for their children? You mean to say that the education from their slum schools is better than the government schools?

Then why are we spending vast sums of money on our own government school system? Isn't the whole idea of government education to provide for the children of the poor? And that we have to put everyone else's children in the same one-size-fits-all system just to make it fair?

Now we find that the poor are perfectly capable of directing and paying for the education of their own children. In fact they are better than the government and its experts. So why are we spending 5 percent of GDP on an education system that underperforms even threadbare schools run by untrained entrepreneurs and uncertified teachers in the slums?

Why indeed?

Why not? Of course government education is worse than the private alternative. And we all know why, instinctively.

The failures of government education stem for a simple fact: the pervasive lack of accountability that characterizes every government school system. Teachers don't turn up. Teachers aren't committed to the students. Schools don't teach what parents want. Teachers' unions make it impossible to fire teachers. Education becomes a patronage system to reward the supporters of politicians.

But there's a bigger problem. And James Tooley illustrates it with the sad story of education in India. It turns out that, before the Brits got there, India had its own education system: a small, informal private school in every village. And students helped to teach each other. But Thomas Macaulay (the famous historian) replaced that system in the mid-nineteenth century with a centralized government system. According to Mahatma Gandhi, in 1931, it reduced the literacy of Indians, because it performed worse than the existing informal system.

Isn't that exactly what is going on in eduation in the United States? We have lordly experts in the progressive educated class imposing their ideas on the practical class and the poor. What kind of education do the folks in the building trade want and need? Or the poor in the inner city? Nobody ever asked. They already knew.

It is time to reform our education and return it to the people. Because we can trust parents to know what is best for their children much more than educated elitists.

As British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury said: Never trust experts.

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