Defend Truth


Public-private debates in education: constructive debates beyond picking a side


Melanie Smuts is a lapsed human rights lawyer and the founder and CEO of Streetlight Schools - a non-profit that focuses on starting primary schools in under-resourced areas using an innovative model that incorporates global best education practice into a local context.

In places ranging from Sweden to South Africa people wonder if education state failure couldn’t be solved by the market – most recently in a column by Ivo Vegter proclaiming that “vouchers and low-fee private schools can save SA’s woeful education system”. These debates tend to be as predictable as they are unproductive. And yet, beyond conversations that often rehash a personal preference on what ought to be done, there is a meaningful conversation to be had with fewer easy answers but much richer information.

For those who are not familiar with the public vs. private education debate, here is a high-level summary of the two camps:

  • Champions of education privatisation say that the state has failed as a custodian of education: that parents should be allowed to make a choice, and that dynamics of freedom, innovation and competition will eventually result in a competitive market for education where excellence thrives and poor schools close due to lack of demand. This results in an education system that’s better for everyone. Besides, states are performing so poorly, what’s the harm in giving markets a try?

  • Champions of public education say that privatisation leads to inequality, marginalises vulnerable learners, and that there is little to no evidence that private education performs better than public education. Further, they will state that there are important moral reasons that education should be equal for everyone in a democratic society.

Let’s start with the free market solution. The problem with defences like Ivo Vegter’s, quoting Roodt/IRR’s ‘why don’t we just give vouchers a try?’ suggestion, is that it presents this thinking like a novel concept and ignores the intellectual history of this idea, as well as the decades of data we have on those who have tried it. The idea for vouchers originates from free-market founding father Milton Friedman, who found himself in a bind with public goods like education, which benefits society overall, but which people could not necessarily buy. His solution, expounded in a 1955 essay, was a voucher system where parents could “shop” for education providers, and top up with their own cash if they wish.

This idea has now been tried around the world, and we have reams of data on whether it implements well. In the US, evaluations done on tens of thousands of students in voucher systems have shown mixed, but generally negative results. Latin America, specifically Chile, rolled out a massive voucher programme and the outcomes also showed extremely mixed results, to the point where parents are now largely demanding a return to more conventional public education. A large Indian voucher-system RCT showed mixed to slightly positive results. A study on privatisation efforts in Liberia from this year shows mixed-to-improved results, but not at costs that could be replicated in any meaningful way.

The evidence suggests that there is no conclusive proof that vouchers work – but one common, disturbing trend across countries is that it exacerbates inequality, something that should give us pause as South Africans.

The simplistic picture presented that private education clearly works better than public education in the South African context is also false. The results are, unsurprisingly, also mixed. A recent RESEP paper shows that low-fee independent schools use resources more effectively, but that outcomes are mixed. It seems that in Gauteng, private schools get you better value-for-money, but in the Western Cape, the opposite is true.

What about parents choosing better schools for their children? Well, the Varkey Foundation recently surveyed 27,380 parents across 29 countries (including South Africa) on parental perception of school choice and quality. Globally, parents’ confidence in the quality of teaching at their children’s schools is high, with 78% rating it “fairly good” or “very good” – with there being no correlation to how good the school system in that country actually is.

In South Africa, parents were 84% happy. In the same survey, South African parents are also, on balance, unhappy with state provision (54% rating it as “poor”), with 82% saying they would send their child to a private school if they could, while at the same time feeling that their school is preparing their child well for the future (69%). Parental choice and perception is not straightforward.

In all, it’s clear that if you think vouchers plus parental choice automatically equals a better educational system, you are living in libertarian la-la land. And none of this deals with the dark side of the market: if the competition is the state, market incentives over time will drive the quality of scalable provision downwards to be close to state outcomes to ensure efficiency and maximise profits. The invisible hand does not have ideological ambitions for an educated nation.

But before you think that I’m about to give an impassioned defence for public education – I’m not. We have some great state-driven interventions – like EGRS – but we need a lot more. States really are failing children; there are intractable issues around accountability and collective bargaining, which often exclude the priorities of children in favour of teachers, and there are not very clear answers on how to get states to commit to comprehensive education reform without some serious leadership commitment beyond time lines that politicians tend to think about.

In South Africa, we are kidding ourselves if we think our system is working when we look at the combination of spending, outcomes, teacher attendance and corruption in schools. And around the world there are real, profound questions around how grim, irrelevant and impersonal large-scale education is – and states have a lot to answer for here. Norm articulation is easy on the public education side of the fence but dynamic, meaningful answers on how to really move the needle on reform tends to be less forthcoming. We know good public education is a good thing: but how do we get there?

And though vouchers are not a sound idea, there are some areas where privatisation has led to better outcomes. In the US, charter schools like the Harlem Children’s Zone have managed to close racial achievement gaps for vulnerable and minority children – a significant achievement in that context. Organisations like PEAS in Uganda, and The Citizen’s Foundation in Pakistan, are doing irreplaceable work to educate children up to a high standard in those counties, closing gender gaps and supporting marginalised children –in constructive public-private partnership models.

There are also hard cases: a USAID report that came out this month on non-state schools in places like DRC and Haiti, conflict zones, and extremely remote areas, shows that often small-scale local private operators are taking immense risks to educate children where no one else can, or will. If there is no state, or a hostile state, or a very weak state, then the provision of non-state education is absolutely vital and the discussion surely cannot assume that there is some ultimate answer where public trounces private.

And last, though I am loath to agree with the “free marketeers” on anything, there is something to be said about innovation. Take the example of the inspiring Molo Mhlaba – an isiXhosa girls’ school in Khayelitsha focusing on STEAM education. Or Spark Schools, who are renowned the world over for their approach to technology and 21st century skills integration in their schools. Or Nova Pioneer schools, where Fridays are dedicated not to subject work but to answering a big question through extensive project-based learning. Compare the pedagogical quality, school culture and degree of thought, passion and strategy in any of these schools to the often-racist, staid, academically declining, sports-obsessed Model C schools and it makes me want to live in a world where the state selectively backs strong private sector operators to genuinely provide answers to what our education system might one day look like for all children.

Let us not be intellectually lazy on either side of the fence of the public-private debate. We will not get away from solving the education crisis through wishful thinking about the market when neither the theory nor the data supports that conclusion. Nor can we solve the education debate by making nice statements about education as a public good when 78% of our children can’t read. But we can, actually, learn a lot from each other in the space between. DM


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