Private education, not just for rich kids anymore

One of the best books on development that I’ve read in the last few years is The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves by James Tooley.  I recommend it all the time to grad students in development.  Surprisingly, there are tens of thousands of private schools that operate on a shoestring and educate poor children in developing countries.  It was a surprise to Tooley as well, and the story of him uncovering this phenomena in country after country is fascinating.  It is especially interesting how education bureaucrats are ignorant of what’s going on and always profess vehemently to him that there is no way this is happening in “their country.”  But yet it is…and providing better education (and sometimes cheaper once you figure in all the hidden fee for public schools).

I think this is an under-researched topic so I am happy to see a new working paper this morning by Bold, T.; Kimenyi, M.; Mwabu, G.; Sandefur, J. on private education in Kenya.  The title of the paper is The high return to low-cost private schooling in a developing country and here’s the abstract:

Can market solutions provide cost-effective alternatives to failing public service delivery systems in developing countries? Existing studies from the U.S., Latin America and Asia provide little evidence that private schools lead to large gains in academic performance relative to public schools. Using data from Kenya – a poor country with weak public institutions – we find a large effect of private schooling on test scores, equivalent to one full standard deviation. This finding is robust to endogenous sorting of more able pupils into private schools. The magnitude of the effect greatly exceeds the most cost-effective interventions to increase public school performance documented in the literature. Combining household survey and administrative data, we estimate median expenditure per pupil is just $41 per annum in the private sector, compared to $84 in government primary schools.