"Poor Choices" Yield Better Education

Private schooling outperforms public schooling even for students from the poorest families in Third World countries.
Photo source: “Is Private Education Good for the Poor?” © James Tooley, working paper for the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

“Poor parents would make bad choices.” That is one of the main arguments leveled at school-choice programs like tuition tax credits and vouchers. It is seldom worded so bluntly, but many Americans are convinced that the education of disadvantaged children would suffer if the government did not run schools, even if private school tuition assistance were readily available.

A new study by University of Newcastle professor James Tooley calls that belief into question.

Over the past two years, Tooley led teams of investigators into impoverished villages and urban slums in India, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. He then carefully compared the characteristics and performance of government and nongovernment schools based on his teams’ findings. His study offers a succession of myth-shattering findings:

The implications of Tooley’s findings are profound. Opposition to parental choice programs has often hinged on the belief that they would hurt the poor. In the wake of these results from Africa and India, it is difficult to imagine how that belief could be sustained.

On average, three-quarters of the students in these desperately poor enclaves attend tuition-charging private schools. The private schools spend far less per pupil (their teachers’ salaries are roughly one-third of those in the public sector), but the schools usually enjoy lower rates of teacher absenteeism and comparable facilities and teacher satisfaction. Most importantly, the private schools significantly outperform their government-school counterparts academically — even after controlling for differences in student characteristics between the two sectors.

These results are consistent with U.S. education research, which finds that inexpensive private schools serving the poor in this country produce achievement and graduation rates that at least equal, and usually surpass, those of the higher-spending neighborhood public schools.

Critics of school choice have long disputed the significance of the American evidence, suggesting that the superiority of private schools might be illusory — the product of a “better” clientele, rather than any differences in management or teaching methods. According to this view, the small fraction of poor Americans who patronize private schools might be more astute or more committed to education than most other low-income families. If so, private schools would perform no better than public schools if they had to enroll a larger fraction of the total low-income population.

But if that theory were valid, it would apply equally well to other nations. If the widespread consumption of private schooling by low-income Americans would allegedly erase the private sector’s advantage, then the same should be true in countries like India and Ghana.

Yet as Tooley has shown, it is not.

The overwhelming majority of poor students in the foreign countries Tooley studied attend private schools, but these students nevertheless outperform their peers from vastly higher-spending public schools. Regardless of income level, it seems that parents generally make better educational decisions for their own children than state-appointed officials make on their behalf.

The implications of Tooley’s findings are profound. Opposition to parental choice programs has often hinged on the belief that they would hurt the poor. In the wake of these results from Africa and India, it is difficult to imagine how that belief could be sustained. The notion that poverty somehow implies parental incompetence in choosing schools was never based on any body of empirical evidence, but now it is certainly contradicted by one.

Indeed, all those concerned with improving the state of American education should feel compelled to expand access to independent schools by the most effective means possible, even if those means include education tax credits that have been previously considered off-limits.

If we do so, we will begin to catch up with the generosity already on display in the Third World. As Tooley discovered, at least three-quarters of the private schools in these Third World villages and slums are offering free or subsidized tuition for the poorest of the poor. More than one out of every six private school students pay less than full tuition. One in fourteen attends private school for free. In other words, the families who pay full tuition — desperately poor people by American standards — are subsidizing the education of those even more destitute than themselves.

If this feat can be managed by people earning less than a few dollars a day, surely the richest nation on earth can find a way to provide universal access to the independent education marketplace.


Andrew J. Coulson is author of the book “Market Education: The Unknown History” and is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.


School-choice programs are often opposed on the assumption that poor people would not be able to select good schools for their children. Recent research in Third World countries, however, shows that the poorest families generally make good choices and profit more from private schools than from public schools.

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