Private schools or public? Justin Sandefur responds to Kevin Watkins (and this time you can vote)

Everyone enjoyed last week’s arm-wrestle on public v private education, so in a titanic struggle for the last word, Justin Sandefur (right, Justin Sandefurin the private corner) and Kevin Watkins (in the public one) are back for another go. And this time, you get to vote – tick as many options as you agree with on the poll below. Seconds out, round two….. Dear Kevin, Thanks for your reply. You are of course quite right that I wear a Pearson corporation logo on a chain around my neck to ward off evil spirits, I can’t stand (or understand) solutions with multiple steps and regularly visit my local medium to have a chat with the sadly departed Milton Friedman.  But despite all that, I want to contend that we agree on almost all the necessary ingredients for a constructive policy discussion.  I’ll end with where I think our core disagreements are. Evidence over ideology First, we agree the debate should be based on empirical evidence, not ideology.   In an essay entitled “Policy Analysis with Incredible Certitude“, economist Charles Manski re-examined Milton Friedman’s dubious advocacy for private-school vouchers in the U.S., noting: “Friedman cited no empirical evidence relating school finance to educational outcomes.  He posed a purely theoretical classical economic argument for vouchers…” “Rhetorically, Friedman placed the burden of proof on free public schooling, effectively asserting that vouchers are the preferred policy in the absence of evidence to the contrary.  This is the rhetoric of advocacy, not science.  An advocate for public schooling could just as well reverse the burden of proof, arguing that the existing educational system should be retained in the absence of evidence.” What Manski calls a purely theoretical argument was, in effect, just an expression of faith and political ideology.   I think we both agree that the wisdom of investing in voucher programs or similar schemes should hinge on evidence and facts. Shared values Second, I’m going to venture we agree on the underlying goals or values that should guide our evaluation of the evidence.    I’d list three. #1.Access.  Primary schooling should be free, always and everywhere. #2.Quality.  Governments have a responsibility to ensure quality education for all children. #3.Equity.  Equality matters in and of itself, beyond mere improvements in, say, average learning outcomes. A good expression of these values came from Pauline Rose via twitter. Pauline rose tweet If there’s any disagreement between us on these three values, I suspect it’s on the definition of “ensure” in point #2.  I’m happy for it to mean “pay for”.  But I noticed that when the UNESCO Education for All report discusses public-private ventures, it states in bold, colorful text: “The bottom-line obligation for all governments is to develop publicly financed and operated primary schooling of good quality for all children” This a priori insistence that governments not only finance, but directly operate primary schools essentially cuts off any evidence-based policy debate on public-private partnerships before it can begin.  (Friedman was never quite this bold!)  It also suggests that we artificially limit the tools at our disposal to pursue our core goals of access, quality, and equity. Growing empirical consensus Third, we agree on most, though clearly not all, of the relevant empirical facts.  Let’s see if we can hone in on where we disagree by revisiting the three issues I started with in my first post. The crisis.  I think we’re in full agreement that the current state of education in many developing countries is unacceptable.  I focused on low learning levels, but you’re right that there’s a long way to go on enrollment in many countries, not least Pakistan. Affordability.You noted that it costs about 1/10th the minimum wage to pay for a low-fee private school in Lagos.  In the blog comments, Ruth Nyambura did similar calculations for Kenya, showing that even low-cost schools are very expensive for typical Kenyan households.  This is all sadly true, yet potentially irrelevant given we agree that primary access should be free. Parents should not be paying these fees.  If a country decides to pursue any form of public-private partnership for primary schooling, we agree that the state should, at a bare minimum, foot the bill for school fees.   The relevant point here is that fee levels in low-cost private schools are much less than the cost (to the state) of operating public schools.   From a public finance point of view, private schools cost negative money if the alternative is state provision. Public vs. private performance.   This is where we disagree on a few matters of fact:. • You insist there’s no evidence that charter schools in the U.S. are working, despite multiple randomized trials showing significant gains.  These trials show charter schools are most effective for non-white pupils in disadvantaged urban areas who are low-achievers at baseline, but less effective for suburbanites.  Instead you cite a Stanford report (CREDO) that has come under considerable methodological attack for its reliance on observational data and potential methodological flaws.  Even so, CREDO  notes that “For students that are low income, charter schools had a larger and more positive effect than for similar students in traditional public schools.”  CREDO also argues against attempts to cap charter school growth. • My fault for introducing Sweden to the discussion, which is probably of limited relevance to the countries we’re debating, but the blog post you linked to on the Swedish model states unequivocally, “There is no question that, at a system-wide level, the presence of free schools improves outcomes.”  The equity effects here are more complicated, though your link cites research showing, “students from low-income families benefit more than those from high-income families”.   I’m not sure either of us wants to rest our case on Sweden. • More relevant is the Kenya example, where you worried that the results in my co-authored work showing higher performance of private schools were driven by elite academies.  There’s ample evidence this isn’t true.   Two-thirds of private schools operate on lower budgets than the median public school, while roughly 85% of private schools score higher than the median public school. • Finally, you shouldn’t have to take it from me.  Let’s turn to South Asia, where the UNESCO EFA report (p. 166) sums up the empirical debate: “There is evidence that in many contexts private schools are outperforming state schools. In parts of India and Pakistan, children enrolled in low-fee private schools perform better, on average, than those in government schools, once adjustments are made for socio-economic status and other variables (Andrabi et al., 2008; Aslam, 2007; Das et al., 2006; Muralidharan and Kremer, 2006; Schagen and Shamsen, 2007).” There is increasingly little wiggle room for debate on this.  So, where do we go from here? Fixing failed states Picture a village in rural Kenya with two schools: one government school with multiple classrooms but chronically absent teachers and abysmal academic performance; and one private school with motivated staff, involved parents, and an accountable management structure producing higher scores.  But the private school charges fees that impose a serious economic burden on poor families. What’s the right response here?  Whoever runs the Labour Campaign for International Development twitter feed picked one of the more popular lines from your post: LCID tweet I can’t help wondering who this imperative is directed at.  If the “fix the state” message is directed at the parents in my hypothetical village, it seems like a cruel, Marie-Antoinette-esque joke.  And if it’s directed at DFID or any foreign donor, well, Matt’s response seems appropriate. Matt Colin tweet The proper audience — though I doubt many are listening to us — may be national governments and Ministries.  I’m just not convinced we have clear solutions to offer them.  My co-authors and I spent years working with the Ministry of Education in Kenya trying to identify what works, and we’ve pretty much failed so far. I know you’re more optimistic.   You mentioned a McKinsey report (co-authored by none other than Pearson’s Michael Barber — he’s everywhere!) as providing powerful examples of how investing in state systems can improve learning.  But it’s not clear this report is relevant to rural Pakistan, India, or Kenya.  The full sample of  McKinsey’s “sustained improvers” consists of England, Hong Kong, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Ontario, Poland, Saxony, Singapore, Slovenia, Boston, and Long Beach (USA). I’m left sympathizing with Claire Melamed from ODI. Claire Melamed tweet What if we can’t fix failed state systems anytime soon, as most evidence would seem to suggest.  What do we do in the interim? First, we should be trying as hard as possible to come up with solutions that provide affordable, equitable quality education across the world –and that is going to take a lot of experimentation and monitoring. But, second, we should avoid the urge to squash the private sector.  This urge is reflected in Kenya’s decision to penalize private school graduates in secondary school admissions, and in some of the more controversial pieces of India’s Right to Education Act.  Private schools are laboratories for approaches that can be applied in the public sector, and can be an important tool in extending access to quality education. No one is calling for mass privatizations, whatever that means.  I don’t think we currently have a sufficient evidence base on the impacts of vouchers in low-income settings to even justify rapid expansion of these programs.  But the UN Declaration says everyone has a right to education.  Sadly, in many parts of the world today, send your kids to a government school, and they won’t get educated. We shouldn’t be taking away kids’ human rights based on an ideological opposition to the private sector. I’m sure we don’t agree on everything here.  But I do hope we have real common ground about the terms of an evidence-based policy debate, the values we’re pursuing, and the kind of research that remains to be done. Best, Justin Kevin’s already sharpening his pencil…. [poll id=”14″] ]]>

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12 Responses to “Private schools or public? Justin Sandefur responds to Kevin Watkins (and this time you can vote)”
  1. The debate can go on and on for ages, according to me: every school matters, be it public or private. The people at the helm: be it the school Headmaster or Principal has the power to make a difference, motivate his staff, organize finances and run the school. Now what educational system you run depends on what is the desired outcome: better individuals for life or just plain employ-ability – this will vary from one nation to other. Many achievers have come from either public or private school background – lot depends on the individual as well

  2. Hi Justin,
    I chair the Labour Campaign for International Development so that post was from me. It was not in fact a ‘Marie-Antoinette-esque joke’ and that insinuation was a bit condescending, which is disappointing.
    Our stances on various issues is largely directed at what DFID is doing, critiquing what the current Conservative government is doing and debating what a Labour approach should look like. And for me I do not think DFID should be choosing to fund private education schemes.
    Values and ideology are not dirty words – the NHS in the UK came about not only because the evidence made its creation compelling – though it did – but because a Labour government elected with a strong mandate made the political decision to back it and implement it (against much opposition from GPs etc at the time).
    So DFID’s support for voucher schemes for private schools must not be viewed in isolation but in the overall political context. That this Conservative led government stood on a platform of ‘Big Government Bad, Big Society Bad’ alone is enough to show you how ideologically distasteful they find public services. And since coming to power we’ve seen them halve the amount of money going to budget sector support – disingenuously under the guise of it not providing ‘value for money’, despite reports from Oxfam and others detailing the evidence in favour of budget sector support, and despite the independent aid watchdog they themselves set up (ICAI) reviewing DFID’s budget support programmes on education and (with some valid criticisms) giving their approval.
    Meanwhile in health, despite a move towards public healthcare systems around the world (see one of their first moves when they came to power in 2010 was to scrap the Centre for Progressive Healthcare Financing that Labour had planned to set up. And right now as the Indian government is approving plans for public health care based on a similar model to our own NHS, this Conservative government is doing nothing to support them. In all the debate around whether aid should be given to middle income countries, what better example of low-cost high-impact support then our Department of Health say providing technical assistance to the Indian government.
    Given that overall context, we are deeply worried by their support for private education. This isn’t about squashing the private sector, but it is for us about what DFID chooses to support. And I don’t think DFID should be choosing to support private schools over programmes to strengthen public systems.

  3. sophie t

    great post.
    It’s all well and good arguing on principle for state schools but I think this severely underestimates the intransigent problems in some school systems (corruption, low quality teaching, poor human resource management, poor governance, etc).
    I worked with a local NGO in Cambodia that was so frustrated by the standards in public schools – and the fact that they also, illegally, require payment from students anyway – that they started their own school. This is also used as a demonstration school, and aims to spread best practice. The socioeconomic background of the students is no different to those in other schools in the district.
    I really can’t understand the rationale for opposing such innovative approaches, with potentially such high returns. There’s risk – but there’s also significant risk in just continuing to give money to the state schooling system.
    It’s just arrogant to believe that local people should just be passive recipients of poor public services. Obviously, to avoid exacerbating inequalities, schools need to be regulated effectively, but I really think that’s a surmountable issue (as Justin touches on).

  4. I was hesitating whether to comment as I feel slightly uncomfortable with the tone of the blog – particularly since Justin has not communicated with me outside of blogs and tweets – but then remembered Duncan’s blog a while ago about women tend not to comment as much on blogs, so decided I should feel empowered to do so!
    I am somewhat perplexed by a tweet by Justin that I have just seen, but can’t get my response into 140 characters.
    Here is the tweetL
    ‘ Amen. Now someone tell UNESCO. “@mandabeat: @JustinSandefur @fp2p we should prioritize learning…however it is delivered”’
    First – please note that the EFA Global Monitoring Report is published by UNESCO, but is an independent Report.
    Second – neither I, nor the EFA Global Monitoring Report, nor UNESCO have ever suggested that learning should not be prioritized.
    The EFA Global Monitoring Report that Justin refers to presented evidence on why low fee private schools are actually costly for the poor and can reinforce inequality, but unfortunately this does not get presented in the blog.
    And no one is debating whether low fee private schools may be performing better – the questions are who can get access to them (ie are they widening social divides), and whether the low fee private schools are actually performing at an acceptable level. There are good performing low fee private schools as very bad ones – just as there are for government. And government schools need to do far better overall.
    It is a shame that Justin chose not to respond to Ruth’s question about whether the data in your paper include low fee private schools – this is a key question for the conclusions that are drawn.
    It is vital to keep the debates evidence-based, and I fear that this blog is detracting from this intention. We shouldn’t be taking away kids’ human rights based on ideological support to the public – or private – sector.
    I’d be happy to discuss and share evidence with Justin in a different space to blogs and twitter, as I imagine we will find much common ground on the importance of ensuring that all children are in school and learning – values to which I am certainly committed, and committed to identifying robust evidence that can help us achieve these goals.

  5. David –
    Sorry if my Marie Antoinette joke disappointed you. My attempts at humor have that effect. I was trying to avoid being shrill overall, but I admit I slipped up there.
    The substance of your comment feels out of place on this blog. Kevin and I have been debating the evidence for whether low-cost private schools improve learning outcomes for children in developing countries, particularly Pakistan, India, and Kenya. In contrast, your comment appears to be primarily concerned with UK politics, using DFID policy as terrain to critique the current Conservative government. I just made an extended plea for an evidence-based policy discussion, and you’ve responded by ignoring all the evidence I presented.
    I’m sympathetic to your partisan aims. If attacking DFID’s support for low-cost private schooling in Pakistan and Kenya wins votes for Labour in Britain, then perhaps those ends justify those means. But I think it’s a shame if the question of what’s best for Pakistani and Kenyan students has to take a backseat to UK electoral concerns on an Oxfam blog.

  6. Justin,
    Apology accepted, I didn’t mean to have a sense of humour failure either I just found it a bit patronising, I’m sure I’ll live.
    Re your comment in response, I do find it objectionable that you try and claim the moral high ground – my central point is you are ignoring the political context.
    This is not about ‘using DFID policy’ as the ‘terrain’ for criticising the UK Conservative government. Frankly if it were I’d focus my fire on issues where they are doing even worse such as their bungling of the economy. Nor is it about ‘trying to win votes’ – though it is important people realise the consequences of not voting Labour for UK development policy (you get a Conservative government that does things most readers of this blog will not like), and I’ll not apologise for that.
    No, I’m critiquing the current UK government’s DFID policy specifically. The Conservatives may have ring-fenced the aid budget but they are making policy decisions that are based on their ideology, their values and evidence that supports their values. Political decisions matter, we do not live in a vacuum – far from a parochial concern of UK politicos, that has implications for people across the world where DFID operates. And as I said previously, I deeply object to DFID supporting private schools whilst at the same time they are slashing by more than half their support for public education and health systems.

  7. Pauline,
    Welcome to the debate.
    I disagree with a few of the conclusions and interpretations, but I agree that the EFA Global Monitoring Report does a really nice job of pulling together a lot of empirical evidence. Kudos on that.
    I hope I can be forgiven for conflating UNESCO and the EFA Report published by UNESCO, but thanks for clarifying.
    My specific objection (underlying the tweet you mentioned) was the EFA report’s insistence that governments must both finance and *operate* primary schools systems — a conclusion which did not seem to arise from the evidence presented.
    If I understand you correctly though, I think we both agree that equity and quality should trump any question of who operates which school. So it really comes down to a matter of debating the evidence on the best means to a set of common goals — which is what I’ve tried to do here.
    With respect to your/Ruth’s question about the sample for my co-authored paper on Kenyan private schools, we analyze the full population of pupils sitting the KCPE exam. The paper, data set, and Stata do-files are available online here.

  8. kevin

    Justin: Just to thank you for the debate. I enjoyed it. Hopefully, we have set out the evidence in a way that will keep the dialogue going. These are really important issues. I think we agree that there are no simple solutions and plenty of tough policy dilemmas facing governments and non-government actors. While we reach very different conclusions, we also agree that evidence matters – far too often debates on this issue generate far more ideological heat than policy light in my view.
    Thanks again Duncan.
    Having stretched your (and doubtles your readers’) patience with the length of our exchanges -and I have to accept on this one that Justin is the less guilty party – I promise to adhere in future to the ‘shorter-is-better’ rule.

  9. Moses Oketch

    Justine: Interesting debate but to suggest that private schools for the poor are doing better than state schools in Kenya is overly simplistic. For one, they do not have classes that extend to year 8 when KCPE exam is taken, and at any given time some of these kids in the so called private schools for the poor will have moved in between public and private schooling- so it is difficult to disentangle achievement gains purely attributable to the private
    schools. If there are any gains, I bet they will be so small such that when conditions in the public schools such as class size is controlled for,
    the gains will be wiped off. Also, if the numbers are weighted, then the
    top 50% in public schools may outperform all those in private schools- I hope you are getting this latter point. We actually wrote a paper on
    this achievement issue and we do find that those who have attended these private schools did slightly outperform those who have been in public
    schools, but we didn’t control for so many factors- to be able to isolate school level factors from other factors and to be confident that the private schools were better.
    Personally I do not think it is morally right to advocate for these so called private schools for the poor- they are terrible structures, unconducive and they do not educate the massive number of kids in these slums. The key point for me is nearly simple, when the state announces and implements universal access to primary education policy, how does the state ensure that those at the bottom of the ladder gain access and how do they ensure that there is quality. The issue about the private schools for the poor is still entangled in ‘excess’ demand and the examples from the US and Sweden are not helpful mixing of apples and oranges. There is need to learn more about these schools, their relative effectiveness and so forth than to jump to the conclusion that they are effective.
    The data is patchy and some of the studies are skewed in one direction. We can only know better if we have complete data for all the private schools and all the public schools and I know some organisations that are keen in collected this data- call it education demographic survey if you wish. Once we have this, we can look at the matter with better clarity.
    What I agree with you on is that we shouldn’t dismiss the private schools entirely- if parents are “choosing” them, they are doing so for a reason and if these are very poor parents as often or always they are, then it is the duty of the state to help them in financing the education of their children. One of the things I have suggested to Kenyan Minister of education in the past is to extend FPE capitaion grant to these schools (different from voucher system), but this is complex because those who run these schools do not wish to be involved with the state for a number of reasons. But I need to emphasise that this is a related point that does endorse any suggestion that these private schools for the poor are a better alternative to state schools, we don’t have the information sufficient enough for us to know in the case of Kenya.

  10. In some category or things private school is better and in some public school is better..Activities differ from the sector like in fees sector public is better as it is affordable..Private school has lots of activities and sports that makes their fees extra and expensive..