Mr. Tooley’s discovery of these schools a few years ago resulted in the publication of academic papers, the production of PBS and BBC documentaries and coverage in a variety of magazines such as Newsweek and the Atlantic. “The Beautiful Tree,” though intended for a general audience, systematically evaluates these schools and compares them to their public and private counterparts.
In contrast to the newly built public schools, the facilities of these low-cost private schools are usually as dilapidated as the homes of the students who attend them. Yet in every country Mr. Tooley studied, these private-school students performed substantially better than nearby public school students on standardized exams in a variety of subjects, including English. That is at least in part because the mostly uncertified private-school teachers within them are much more likely than their certified public school counterparts actually to be teaching when they are visited unannounced.
In the West, private schools tend to be nonprofit and parochial. For the Third World private schools Mr. Tooley discusses, the great motivator is not God but profit. Though Mr. Tooley never explicitly says so (it would have been helpful if he had), these schools do not appear to be, for example, madrassas advancing religiously inspired but dangerous political goals. The schools charge tuitions that we find paltry — the first school we visit charges the equivalent of $1.33 to $2.22 a month — but those small sums, amazingly, allow their proprietors to make a sufficient financial return.
How do private schools outperform public schools with greater resources?
In both the United States and the developing world, a private school’s most important advantage is its control over the teaching staff. Unlike teachers in the public schools, private-school teachers are at-will employees and are terminated when they fail to do their job. Freedom from teachers’ unions gives these schools the ability to control their staffs. The market-induced need to attract tuition-paying parents gives them a compelling reason to do so.
If in addition to being directed to public schools, government funds were allowed to subsidize private-school tuitions, their impact would be enhanced. Unfortunately, society’s squeamishness about markets when the subject is education and its sentimental view of the role of public schools have prevented this from happening. Instead of ignoring the power of markets, we should adopt policies that leverage it.
Many of those who themselves have the resources to obtain quality schooling for their own children continue to insist without evidence that market-based institutions cannot educate the poor. Mr. Tooley’s book demonstrates such schools’ special power to satisfy human needs in the absence of, or even despite, government intervention.
Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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