Worldwide Study Praises Private Education for the Poor

When people examine the best way to deliver education to the poor, rarely do they think of private schools. Even more rarely do they consider that the profit motive might be a useful tool for accomplishing the task. In fact, many people believe that only government can provide low-income children with adequate educational opportunities.

However, the findings of Dr. James Tooley, professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle (UK) and director of the Education Programme at London's Institute of Economic Affairs, make one wonder whether this may have only been a prejudice. In his study, entitled "The Global Education Industry: Lessons from Private Education in Developing Countries" (2nd Edition, 2001), Tooley finds that private, for-profit education in many developing countries is better serving the educational needs of disadvantaged children than are state-run schools, thereby lifting them out of poverty.

"In many developing countries," says Tooley, "government schools are in a parlous state. But the poor don't just sit by, waiting for the government to make their schools better. Some of the most disadvantaged people on this planet vote with their feet, exit the state schools and move their children to private schools, set up by educational entrepreneurs to cater to their needs." Contrary to the image commonly portrayed of private schooling, Tooley found that many schools in developing countries are "open to some of the poorest people, including children of rickshaw pullers and costermongers."

Tooley worked with a team of researchers from 12 developing countries and 18 private education companies, schools and/or universities in those countries. Funded by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private finance arm of the World Bank, "The Global Education Industry" found richly innovative approaches to education that tailor programs to the needs of children from all points on the socio-economic spectrum. (The full report is available on the Internet at

One company highlighted in the IFC report, SABIS Educational Systems Inc., operates 28 schools in more than 11 countries on four continents and serves approximately 20,000 students. In the United States, the company runs eight schools, in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, and here at home in Flint, Michigan. Founded in 1886, in the village of Choueifat, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, SABIS is a family-run business that emphasizes English, math, science and world languages as the gateways to advanced learning.

Contrary to the typical image of private education, "practically any student who is willing to learn is accepted" at SABIS schools. At SABIS, grade placement is based upon academic attainment rather than putting all children of the same age together in the same classroom, which imposes an arbitrary age standard on the learning process. Thus, it is possible, in a SABIS school, to find as much as a three-year age range in the same classroom.

The International Academy of Flint is part of the SABIS School Network. The Academy opened as a charter school in September of 1999, and today serves nearly 800 students in grades kindergarten through 9th grade.

More than 70 percent of the students at the International Academy are African American, while nearly 80 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. Many special education students also attend the school, and many students entering the academy are one to two grade levels behind in both reading and math.

Despite being from low-income, disadvantaged families, the students at the International Academy of Flint are making significant academic gains. Michigan Educational Assessment Program scores for 4th graders demonstrate substantial improvements in reading and math in 2001. Whereas only 27.8 and 22.2 percent achieved "satisfactory" results in math and reading, respectively, in 2000, those same scores improved to 45.2 percent and 36.1 percent in 2001.

One reason for such dramatic gains is SABIS' use of a computerized Academic Monitoring SystemT to track individual student and class progress. Students take weekly tests and teachers are given reports that check mastery and retention of learned concepts and detect gaps that may form in children's learning and/or skills. This feedback helps teachers and students pinpoint areas that need emphasis before new material is introduced.

School principal Mark Weinberg is quick to point out that students still have a long way to go in order to meet the expectations of parents and the standards set by SABIS. "It takes time to make up that lost ground," he says. "We're doing all this with an eye on the fact that our mission is to prepare these children for college."

Examples like SABIS Educational Systems and its Michigan outpost in Flint are showing that for-profit education can improve educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged children. Far from exacerbating inequality in education, private education companies are providing children with greater educational opportunities throughout the world.

Matthew Brouillette is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.