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November 11, 2006

Human Progress Through Private Schools

Economist David Friedman writes in his blog

I recently heard a talk, accompanied by a video, by James Tooley, who has been studying private schools in poor countries—not private schools for the rich but private schools for the poor.

The results sound extraordinary. In slum areas of countries such as Nigeria it appears that a majority of poor children are being educated in private schools, charging on the order of five dollars a month. Parents are willing to pay that because they believe they are getting, in various ways, a better education for their children than in the free public schools. Tooley tested a random sample of both private and public school children, and confirmed that opinion; the children going to the (inexpensive, slum) private schools consistently tested higher than the children going to the public schools.

Is anyone surprised? Private schools have two distinct advantages lacking in the public school. The first is that it’s voluntary instead of compulsory. When parents get to select the best available school for their child, they become active participants in the children’s education. A public system discourages interest and participation by parents, and public schools are not accountable to them for the curriculum and values they teach.

That leads to the second advantage, which is that a private school is forced to charge tuition, that is, set prices. It must respond to the market and produce results that will satisfy their customers. Otherwise, parents will send their children elsewhere.

The American experience bears this out. Over the past forty years, school districts consolidated, school funding became politicized, control shifted increasingly to the federal government, yet the public schools deteriorated. Many parents who were willing and able opted for homeschooling or private schooling. And these privately-educated students consistently outperformed public school students.

It is therefore gratifying to learn that most children in Nigeria are getting a private education. Let’s hope that they continue to avoid government interference.

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