While researching private schools in India for the World Bank, and worried he was doing little to help the poor, James Tooley wandered into the slums of Hyderabad’s Old City. Shocked to find it overflowing with tiny, parent-funded schools filled with energized students, he set out to discover if schools like these could help achieve universal education.
Do private schools exist across the world in the poorest of areas? In third world countries, how do you find private schools? Are there low-cost private schools? How much does teacher engagement matter in education?
The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People are Educating Themselves, written by James Tooley
Low-Cost Schools Are Transforming Africa, written by Tom Vander Ark
The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It, Free Thoughts Podcast
Private Lives and Public Education, written by Jason Kuznicki
The State of State Education in America, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:06 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is James Tooley. He’s the Professor of Educational Entrepreneurship and Policy in the Vincent Center for Economics and Entrepreneurship at the University of Buckingham. About 10 years ago he published, The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves, with the Cato Institute. That book is probably my favorite Cato book, and I think it’s a must-read classic. So I’m excited to have you on the show. Welcome to Free Thoughts James.
00:33 James Tooley: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
00:36 Trevor Burrus: Now, the idea of the subtitle of your book is a personal journey that you took. What does that mean? What did you learn? Why did you not just call it a policy book? What did you learn as a personal journey in this sort of mission you took?
00:48 James Tooley: Yes. So for about nine years before I published the book, I had been traveling to see this phenomenon of low-cost private schools that I was discovering and then discovering anew in different places. And for me, it was very much, it was a personal journey. I was keeping diaries. At the end of every day doing my work, I would keep a diary before I had dinner, and these diaries took on a life of their own. And as I wanted to write something about what I was discovering, instead of writing a dry, potentially dry policy book, I did write policy papers, I wrote academic papers too, but I wanted to convey something of the journey, ‘cause there was a discovery process for me. There was a discovery process for everyone I told about this phenomenon I was discovering and researching. And so, that seemed the natural way of writing it.
01:48 James Tooley: Now, it wasn’t natural to many publishers. I wrote this book, and I think it was rejected 20 or 30 times before the Cato Institute took it on. Obviously, I’m incredibly pleased you did, and it was very nice what you said about it earlier on. But yeah, so it’s not a policy book, but obviously it has implications for policy, it has huge implications, and it’s trying to, yeah, cross genres, isn’t it? It’s a personal, it’s a memoir of a long journey I was making globally trying to bring in all these elements, these policy elements too, but yeah.
02:28 Trevor Burrus: Was it also a journey of you changing your mind? I can’t totally get a sense of that from the book. So you did teach in Zimbabwe in the 80s, correct?
02:37 James Tooley: Yeah. So then it depends how long you take the journey back. So then, if you’re thinking about the life journey, yes, I changed my mind. I started out as a young socialist when I had finished my degree, my mathematics degree. I was excited about seeing the world, but where better to go than Zimbabwe, which was newly independent, and I went there explicitly to help build this Marxist/Leninist regime that Robert Mugabe was advocating. And while I was there I was in two Das Kapital reading groups. At weekends I was teaching in public schools during the week. But at weekends I’d go and help out in communes in the rural areas, and yeah, I was definitely a socialist, and I developed, I changed my mind over a number of years, partly theoretically. And then, perhaps at first theoretically, at first exploring theoretical ideas about the role of government in education, but eventually finding what I found, and what I report in The Beautiful Tree, finding these low-cost private schools, finding that people were creating magnificent educational opportunities for themselves outside of the state, in spite of the state, that then was probably the final change I went through, the final conversion, if you like, to being what I would call myself today, a Libertarian or classical Liberal.
04:18 Trevor Burrus: So you were working, at the beginning of the book, you’re working for the World Bank, I believe it is, doing assessments of private education in different countries around the world. But they were thinking more about upper class, like higher cost private schools, correct?
04:33 James Tooley: Yes. So that this was a research project, first of all, and then some consultancy work that I got. And it was with the private arm of the World Bank that’s called The International Finance Corporation. And they were sending me to amazing places around the world. But yeah, their idea of private education, as everyone’s idea of private education was before and since, but I started this work that’s reported in The Beautiful Tree. Everyone’s idea of private education is for the elite, or at least the upper, upper middle classes and above, and I was looking at elite universities, elite colleges, elite schools in India and Côte d’Ivoire, Peru and so on. And it was while I was in those places, in India to be specific, in Hyderabad, looking at a couple of elite universities, one was the Indian School of Business, now one of a top business school in Hyderabad, in the world, I was dissatisfied.
05:37 James Tooley: I’d become an expert on private education, for various reasons, but I didn’t think my life should be about serving the elite. And so, I wandered. This is how the story really begins in The Beautiful Tree. On a day off, it was Independence Day, Republic day sorry, in the year 2000; Republic Day in India. And off I went into the slums of the old City and discovered a low-cost private school, one low cost private school, and a second and a third, and was soon connected to a whole federation of these. And this somehow brought the different parts of my life together. It genuinely was an epiphany moment. I was an expert on private education. I wanted to be in some way serving the poor, and here were the poorest people in the slums of India, attending private education; low cost private schools. It’s wonderful how different parts of one’s life can come together. And then, I’d carried on exploring that. I managed to get a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. They took a risk with me. They didn’t actually know that what I’d found in Hyderabad would be found anywhere else. But I looked in Nigeria and Ghana, in Kenya, in rural China, I found the same phenomenon. So that was the journey that I report in The Beautiful Tree.
07:02 Aaron Ross Powell: This phenomena that you quite literally just walked into by exploring the slums and finding one after another of these schools, so you discovered it for yourself, but you of course didn’t invent it. This had been around for quite a while; poor people creating private schools that were accessible to the poor. It was fairly widespread, because as you began work on this research you found this stuff in all sorts of different countries. So, were other people aware of this? You said we tend to think of private education as something that is for the wealthy, something that if you can afford it, then you pull your kids out of the public and stick them in the private, but it certainly isn’t accessible to the poor. But if it was so widespread, was it unknown? Did other people who are interested in private education know about it? And if so, what did they think of it at the time?
08:00 James Tooley: Yeah. It’s really interesting question. And you’re absolutely right to pick me up on that in case, there must be no confusion, absolutely, I did not invent it. I discovered it for a particular audience. Let’s say I discovered it for audiences in America and Britain and so on. Did other people know about it? Well, once I’d started searching, I found, I think, two references to it before I started writing. And my first articles were written on this in the year 2000, and there were a couple of references from 1999, I think, but mentioning the phenomenon in passing, and it turned out to be for some people. So let’s take different groups. So there were some in government and the international aid agencies who knew about it, but it was almost a guilty secret, because they didn’t want to start talking about private education for the poor. Everyone knows public education is for the poor. And so, this phenomena as I say, was mentioned in passing, not highlighted.
09:10 James Tooley: Perhaps they didn’t know the extent of it. Well of course they didn’t, they may well have known a little bit. So a few people did know about it. Others in government and in international agencies didn’t really know about it. And I’ve had this experience over the years, I still get this experience even in recent years, where I’ve been in a country and people might have said something like, “Well, I’ve heard your research from India or Kenya. But that doesn’t happen in my country. It absolutely doesn’t happen.” And I’ve actually taken people, even without being in the slums in those places myself, I’ve actually taken people from government and the international agencies to the slums in their own capital cities and showed them something that they absolutely did not know existed, and were doubtful could even exist.
10:05 James Tooley: And then, people in our circles, people in the Catos and the IEA, no, they didn’t know about it, they really didn’t. And what we did know in our circles of course, is that historically, now the work of Professor Edwin George West, EG West, who wrote his great book in 1965 for the Institute of Economic Affairs, Education and the State, he pointed out low cost private schools were existing in Victorian England and 19th century New York and Massachusetts and so on. But we knew about it historically. We did not know about it in the contemporary world. So in a way, it was extraordinary to be able to discover something that your colleagues didn’t know about, and yet, so fitted into our philosophy of life. It is extraordinary to have discovered that, yes.
11:01 Trevor Burrus: So in setting the scene, I like this image which you write about in the book, of taking someone who’s a government official who might deny the existence of such schools or deny that they are schools or… There’s a lot of things we can go through, the way that the government officials react to it, but you go like… So you talk about like Lagos, Nigeria, and the slums of Lagos. What does this scene look like? So what do these schools look like? And you say, you walk down the street in Hyderabad, you find these schools, but they’re not classic schools in many ways, and they might be hard to find if you’re not looking for them. And sometimes they are a little bit ramshackled…
11:38 James Tooley: Yeah, actually no that’s another… And I’ll answer your question in a moment, but that’s another important point, ‘cause I, I won’t mention his name, but a key figure, let’s just say, in our classical, liberal circles, libertarian circles in education, an American. I took him, and he’s connected with India, I took him to see these schools and he said, “Yes, I have seen these before. I’ve noticed these by the roadside, as it were, but I had no vocabulary. I had no concept to fit them into. So in a sense, I just ignored them and assumed they must be public schools, because, that they must be poor public schools or public schools for the poor.” So it’s a very interesting… That’s a genuine story that someone actually said that to me. But yeah, what do they look like? So you mentioned Lagos, that’s how I pronounce it, Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria, now the business city, the commercial center, financial center, massive sprawling city. And there, the slums that I describe in the book, they are poor. They are the poorest slums you can imagine, really.
12:58 James Tooley: The slum, one slum I describe is called, Makoko which is a shanty town built on stilts, stretching into the black waters of the Lagos lagoon. And these are houses built on stilts, wooden houses, and then on reclaimed land by the side there, that there can be mud huts, there can be the buildings built of breeze blocks, perhaps for a couple of feet and then wooden stilts and maybe a wooden or a plastic sheet for the roof, or a combination of plastic and tarpaulins and wood.
13:41 James Tooley: And the very basic schools will have no floor, but a mud floor and will have very basic facilities. Now, when some people see these schools, and this would be typical in many of the slums in Africa. In India there might be slightly more permanent constructions, but often they would be a converted home or a converted house. But when a lot of people see these schools, they think, “Well, this building looks horrible, therefore it can’t be any good.” And that would be a great mistake to think that, as I describe in the book in several places. First of all, these buildings, they might look horrible to us from outside, but they’re a darn sight better than where the children live.
14:32 James Tooley: So they’re an improvement on where the children live. But also education is not just about buildings. Education is about teachers and the commitment of teachers and the commitment of the school manager, and I’ve done tons of research, other people have done a lot of research now. These children in the low cost private schools do outperform those in the government schools, the public schools, even though in the public schools typically the buildings are fine, the buildings are good. There isn’t the teacher commitment there. There isn’t the teacher accountability. And so these pretty terrible buildings you see are actually housing something quite remarkable, high quality education, higher quality than in the public schools.
15:17 Aaron Ross Powell: How do these schools, I guess, work in practice? So, I’m the parent of a young child. When we’re talking about these schools, are we talking about elementary school level, like K through 12? What’s the age range first of the students who are in these things?
15:33 James Tooley: They would vary, but in the African countries typically they would be, what you’d call K or even pre-K, to about class nine or class 10. That is typically where schooling ends and then you go into… So that would be what we call, in West Africa you would call that some primary, pre-primary, primary and junior secondary school, and then there would be a senior secondary school, which is like your grades 10 to 12, or grades nine to 12. They would be less frequent, but again, they do occur. But these typical schools, think it of as being pre-K to grade nine, I would say.
16:13 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, I’m the parent of a child who’s six or seven-years-old say and I have the option of going to the local public school, but I don’t want to for a variety of reasons, so I choose to go to one of these schools. So first, I guess, how do I find them? And then, are they typically open to anyone? And how much does it cost me to do it?
16:41 James Tooley: You’ve described a situation which is very typical, because this is really important that in these poor areas 70% or more of children are in the low cost private schools. So there are many, many more children in the private schools than in the government schools; the public schools.
17:01 Trevor Burrus: Is that just because there’s not enough room in the government schools? 70% seems astounding.
17:05 James Tooley: It is astounding. And these were the figures that I came out with earlier on and people said, “This can’t be true.” And the figure is being replicated and repeated by so many studies now. In Kampala, in Uganda, the figure is over 80% in the private schools. So this is, it’s well documented. This is in urban areas. In the rural areas, the villages and so on, that we haven’t got many good studies on that, but from India, we have a very good annual survey, the ASER, the Annual Survey of Education Report, and that shows around 30% of children in rural India are in private schools. So think of 70% plus in the urban areas, and that figure seems likely to be true in the African countries and looking to 30% in rural areas. It’s a massive…
17:55 Trevor Burrus: But is there enough room in the public schools for the kids?
17:58 James Tooley: There’s plenty of room. There’s plenty of room. In India you’ve got this extraordinary phenomenon, well documented, not by me, but by others now of, believe it or not government schools that are empty of pupils. And then, some with very, very few pupils, because of this mass exodus to the private schools. It’s well-documented. It’s well-known. Research in India of Dr. Geeta Kingdon from the UCL Institute of Education is very, very good in that regard, schools that are empty of pupils, because they’ve fled the public sector to go to the private schools.
18:37 Trevor Burrus: And on Aaron’s question, so you decide you’re gonna pull your kid out of the public schools, what do you do next?
18:41 Aaron Ross Powell: And just to clarify, so I pull my kid out of the public schools or don’t put them in to begin with, and I wanna put them into one of these, is there typically like one in my neighborhood or are there multiple that are competing with each other that I have to choose between?
18:58 James Tooley: Exactly. It’s exactly the latter. In the urban areas, I describe in The Beautiful Tree, how you’re going down one alleyway or down one muddy street, you’d see five or six of these private schools. They are plentiful. They are ubiquitous. They are competing as well as collaborating in some ways, but they are… So you can choose a school. One very important thing is choosing a school near to your home, particularly in areas where you might think the slum is dangerous to your young kids, you might not want them traveling a long way. The public schools are typically quite far away or they’re not usually in the slums. They’re on the edge of the slums. You don’t want your kid traveling through the slums. They’re very young kid, on their own, they could be abducted, they could be hurt, lots of things can go wrong.
19:52 James Tooley: So you want a school near to your home, and there will be two or three near to your home and you then typically compare notes with your brother, your sister, your friends’ brothers and sisters and so on, and you compare notes and you think, “Well, this one suits my kid better. I like the way they focus more on English in that school or they seem to have a good better reputation.” And so, you choose that school, but there will be a choice. This is the extraordinary thing. This is a genuine market in these areas. There is a genuine market and genuine choice.
20:30 Aaron Ross Powell: And how much?
20:32 James Tooley: So, we’ve done quite a bit of work on this affordability question. So I could give you absolute numbers. Typically, the schools in say Nigeria, they can be as low cost $5 or $6 a month. The ones we look at perhaps can go up to $15 a month, so it’s that sort of $100, $150, 200$ a year school fees. But the important thing is the affordability, and we’ve got, done a lot of research looking at the poverty line, various poverty lines, which is sometimes country specific sometimes they’re international ones and showing that there are many schools that are affordable for a family on the poverty line, if they’re only spending 10% of their total expenditure on the school fees for all of their children. It’s a complex formulation. But basically it’s saying if you’re on the, if you’re a family on the poverty line your imaginary family could will be on the poverty line. There will be many schools in their neighborhood, the majority of the schools in their neighborhood will be affordable to that family on the poverty line. Without them spending more than 10% of their total expenditure or total income the same for 4%.
22:00 Trevor Burrus: And what about scholarships for people below that line?
22:03 James Tooley: So the schools typically do, so I’ve sort of, I’ve given you an average amount, again the beauty of this market at least I find it beautiful, is there’s again, gradation of fees. So, I’ve described that if you’re on the poverty line there will be schools affordable to you. If you’re above the poverty line there are schools affordable to you there, if you’re below the poverty line, obviously not all the way down to zero, but if you’re below… There will also be schools affordable to you. There’s a whole range of school fees. So there will be some available even to very poor families. Obviously at some point you will be too poor to go to school. Very importantly and I’ll get back to the scholarship question there, you mustn’t think that the public schools are free. It’s a great misnomer to call them free. If you’re a poor parent, and you’re making this decision between a private school and the public school first of all as I’ve indicated the public school is probably further away, so you’ll need some transportation costs, which you wont get in the private school or not to the same extent.
23:17 James Tooley: But also you need to buy shoes. The public school won’t let you in without shoes, you need to buy uniform. School uniform is very common in these countries we work in and the school, public school won’t let you in without uniform. You’ll need to buy books, you’ll need to buy pencils and you’ll probably also need to pat pay some informal fees to the teacher of the school, maybe a development, building development levy, or something like that. So we’ve done a lot of research in various locations on this. And a typical or average figure is the cost to a parent of sending a child to a public school given all these additional costs I just described is about 75%. Sorry these are average figures we’ve got from a study in Liberia and similar figures from a study in Lagos, Nigeria. The cost to a parent is 75% of the cost of sending a child to a low cost private school. Put another way, the sending a children to a low cost private school is 1.3 times the amount of sending to a public school. Obviously in the private schools, there are fees, in the public schools, there are not or not to the same extent. But these extra costs, shoes, books, transportation, uniform, they are roughly the same in both public and private, and that gives that figure.
24:38 James Tooley: So it’s very important to stress this. There’s not a choice between free public education and expensive private education, neither is free. And the poorest of the poor cannot afford either. The poorest of the poor cannot afford to send their children to public school. It’s very important to note. So on scholarships, yeah, so I did a lot of work on this many… When I started this research 10, 15 years ago. I haven’t done so much since, but then we found, I think it was 7% of school places where in the studies in India and Nigeria were… This is roughly a figure with the word scholarship. So the school might explicitly say, “I’m funding some children in memory of my late father.” Or more likely it’s more ad hoc than that. So children start in the school, they do a term and then their father dies, or runs away and they’ve become orphans or semi-orphans and the school will typically say, “Well carry on here, we’re not gonna throw you out.” And that will be an informal scholarship. So there’s a flexibility in the private schools which does allow poor people to use them, and even to the extent of providing free or low subsidized school.
26:11 Aaron Ross Powell: So, we’ve said that the one advantage that these private schools have is distance, that they’re more local than the public schools typically are. Another might be cost that they’re about the same or they cost nothing, if you don’t have anything to pay. But how do they compare just educationally? What makes them… If I’m choosing between the public school in the private school and the distance isn’t an issue and the cost isn’t an issue, why would I choose the private over the public school?
26:44 James Tooley: Yeah. And just to clarify I’m not, typically the private school is more expensive, but it’s not, and it’s 1.3 times more of the total cost.
26:52 Aaron Ross Powell: They’re about the same.
26:53 James Tooley: Yeah, so this was the big question, was it when I first discovered these schools and realized how many there were and got a sense that a majority of kids in poor urban areas were using these schools. The big question was, how good are they? And are parents being hoodwinked? This is the key thing. This is what government officials, international agency officials, World Bank officials, said to me when I first, as it were, came back reporting on this. I was very excited about all I’d seen. They said sort of, “Calm down Tooley. All you discovered is business people exploiting the poor and these parents are being hoodwinked. Their parents are ignoramuses. They think just because this is called private… ” I report on one official in Lagos, Nigeria saying, “It’s just because parents think these schools are private, so they must be better, but they are not. And they are just stupid, and they are being fooled by these proprietors.” So obviously, we took this very seriously this question, and others have taken it seriously since, and study after study after study now shows a pretty uniform picture, that children who attend the private schools do academically out-perform those in the public schools, even after controlling for all the appropriate background variables.
28:20 James Tooley: Now, there is some controversy about what I’ve just said, but I’ve responded to journal articles which seemed to suggest maybe the opposite, or maybe there’s no difference. And typically, when you dig into the data, you find, yes, there is a clear difference when you’re comparing like with like. So parents are not being fooled, as you and I would perhaps would be surprised if poor parents with very little money were being fooled in this way, or being hoodwinked, or just going for a status symbol, and they’re not. These schools are better academically, and study after study shows that. So it’s a tremendous success story. A majority of kids, poor kids in the urban areas in these private schools, they’re out-performing those in the government schools. They’re affordable to the poor. What’s not to like?
29:10 Aaron Ross Powell: What accounts for them producing better results? Granted, that’s a question that may be… The answer may be different for different schools, ‘cause they’re not all uniform. But in general, is it maybe smaller class sizes? Are the teachers more qualified or more engaged? Are the students or the families more engaged, because they happen to have chosen this school and are paying for it? These are all the things we might think of if we’re looking at schools in the US. To the other, what reasons? What accounts for this?
29:44 James Tooley: Yeah. And we can’t say this definitively, but it would seem to be the latter part of your previous statement, not the former part. So typically, class sizes will not be smaller in the private schools. Sometimes they are, but it’s not always the case. The teachers absolutely are better qualified, better certified, better trained, more experienced in the public schools. This is a very important thing to note. They’re better paid. They’ve got their certificates. They are more experienced in the public schools than in these low-cost private schools. And yet still, the children in the private schools out-perform. So it’s to do with those other things, the teachers are more engaged. In the public schools, typically, in the countries I’ve been working and described in The Beautiful Tree, in the public schools, the teachers are there for life. They’re heavily unionized, impossible to fire. So if you don’t turn up, if you don’t teach, at worst, you’ll get moved to another school, and it’ll take several years to do so. But more likely, you just get stay in the school, and carry on happily taking your salary and eventually your pension, and the children will suffer.
31:05 James Tooley: In the private schools, if you don’t turn up and you don’t teach, you get fired. Simple. Or at least you might get a little bit of understanding once, but certainly not two or three times. So it’s very, very simple accountability, very, very simple, commitment, very, very simple. Or you want to call it the fear of losing your job? That’s the negative way of looking at it, but it makes you teach, makes you engage with the students, and surely it’s a good thing. And also, you said about parents being engaged. This is something, I’m not aware of a lot of research on this. But intuitively, it seems right, doesn’t it? If you’re a poor parent, and you’re spending even if it’s only 10% of your income or your expenditure on these private school’s fees, then even if it’s only that amount, you’re gonna make sure you’re gonna get value for money, aren’t you? You’re gonna ask your kids what they learned today. You’re gonna make sure they attend school, they do their homework. And so, that more engagement will be there as well.
32:04 Trevor Burrus: And what about innovation? Do we see competing private schools trying out new ideas for how to educate kids in a way that you wouldn’t see in the public schools?
32:12 James Tooley: You do see this, and you would see it more in the India, the South Asia context than you would in the African context, just because India is getting more tech savvy and slightly wealthier. Yeah, you do see innovation. But it’s perhaps not as strong as one might hope. It’s perhaps not as strong as we’d hope, but there are constraints on the private schools, and one obviously is money, the financial situation, and so it’s harder to innovate. But also, there are things like national curricula. There are national tests and so on. And they tend to work on the assumption that schools will be following a particular curriculum and a particular teaching method. And so it may not be worth your while to innovate too much.
33:18 James Tooley: If the national curriculum, and the national test are the ones you’ve got to follow and parents will keep you to those ‘cause these are important to poor parents. So this is, if you like, from a market perspective, it would be one of the slightly disappointing features. Now I’ve been very gung-ho up to now, but one of the slight disappointing features of these private schools is they operate in a regulatory environment, which in a way stifles innovation or at least has the potential. I’m not saying there’s no innovation but it doesn’t lead to it naturally and that’s disappointing. And one would like to see schools being freed from the regulatory environment and I’ve been writing about this and working on this to some extent in certain places. Yeah, but so if you wanna be…
34:11 Trevor Burrus: Well, that brings us to the next question…
34:12 James Tooley: Slightly brought down to earth, everything’s been very positive so far from what I said the regulatory environment can stifle innovation or at least not encourage it.
34:24 Trevor Burrus: That goes nicely to the next question which is the regulatory environment. So obviously this is different per country, but is this absolutely no regulations whatsoever, on these schools? The government doesn’t even have any certification, building inspection whatever or curriculum teacher licensing. I imagine it goes between different gamuts but in general, do they have government officials coming to these schools and inspecting them, and making sure the teachers are licensed or anything like that?
34:54 James Tooley: Yeah. I mean one of the… I think it’s one of the anecdotes, I have there in The Beautiful Tree in the beginning. So this is going back to when I first started going to these schools, I was very impressed to hear stories of how frequently the government inspectors came to see some of these schools in the slums of Hyderabad in India. I even met a few while I was in my visits myself, and I was very impressed by this until someone pointed out to me that, now this is 15, 19 years ago, that the inspectors come to be made happy. To receive a bribe and informal payment. That someone even show me how they do it, they put an envelope in a drawer the teacher will sit at the desk and open the envelope take the drawer… The inspector sorry would take that and go. Now I’m not saying that happens all the time, but that was certainly… So, if you hear inspectors frequently go to schools, it’s not necessarily quite what it seems. But no I think the regulations are something that vary between country.
36:00 James Tooley: The phenomena I’ve described is extraordinary similar if you go to Liberia, Sierra Leone, these are all countries I’ve done my research in, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, North and South Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, all these countries the system is somewhat similar of local private schools. The response from the supply side is somewhat similar, but the regulatory environment can be very different. A country like Ghana is very… The regulations are very light touch, very conducive to schools and a pleasure to work under. Yes, there is, there are regulations, and yes, you have to meet certain certification building regulations and so on. But they are applied with a very like touch and there they’re not particularly onerous. Go now to India, India has now got a very onerous regulatory environment. The new Right to Education act which came in a few years back, sounds like a very positive thing doesn’t it, the right to education, but in fact it has brought in lots of regulations on private schools. In fact, I knew people who were behind the Right to Education act, and they said they did this deliberately.
37:18 James Tooley: They deliberately brought in regulations that would lead to the closure of low cost private schools. And thousands have been closed. So, the regulation environment, goes from perhaps India is pretty bad to Ghana which is very good and other countries in the middle. But there’s typically a national curriculum and national testing, and now the regulations say you have to follow it, but that’s one reason why schools follow it for sure, but a more common reason why schools would follow it is because parents wanted, because it’s the only show in town. So schools don’t just follow regulations just because they’re supposed to, sometimes there’s pressure from parents also.
38:10 Aaron Ross Powell: In the year since you’ve published the book and continued to do work in this area, what has the reaction been to it by people who are studying education, by members of government, who are involved in education, like has it been positive? Has there been pushback? What does it look like?
38:33 James Tooley: Yeah, it has been a mixture, some incredibly positive, some rather negative. But you’re right to draw attention to something which I don’t think everyone has this in their career. So leading up to the publication of The Beautiful tree in 2009 by the CATO institute. This phenomenon of low-cost private schools was virtually unknown, hardly talked about and not on the agenda at all of international agencies, governments, or even think tanks like CATO. In the years since that, it is now on everyone’s agenda. Everyone now recognizes, knows about low cost private schools, whether you’re an international agency like USAID and the British Aid Agency DFID or the European, all the aid agencies know about it and pretty much all national governments, or many national governments know about it now and the teacher unions, the umbrella group for the International Teacher Unions Education International, and the human rights organizations they all know about it now.
39:41 James Tooley: Some have been incredibly positive. So for instance next week I’m invited to give a talk at the US Embassy in Kabul Afghanistan, because USAID has been very positive about the role of low cost private schools in Afghanistan amongst other places and they’re sponsoring conference and visits there because they are excited about the potential of low cost private schools. The same in Lagos, Nigeria, DFID, the British aid agency, they have funded a big project called DEEPEN, and some of the money was badly spent, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from aid projects sometimes, but at least the awareness was there that this was at least a semi-positive thing to support; the movement of low cost private schools. And those could be… You could get positive things from all over the world, from some governments, from some international agencies being very positive about these. Others meanwhile have been negative. So you get states, different states of Nigeria, Rivers State for instance I was there in Port Harcourt recently, was trying to close down the low cost private schools there.
40:58 James Tooley: In Cameroon, I heard the same story. India, I’ve just described, there’s been some sort of negative reaction at the federal level to low cost private schools. And of course, the unions are horrified about low cost private schools. Education International is always banging on about how bad they are. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Education are always saying how bad they are. And recently, there was something called the Abidjan Principles that were brought in by various human rights organizations, which were reluctantly admitting these private schools were there, but none the less, seeking to advise governments on how to regulate them and constrain them as much as possible.
41:44 Aaron Ross Powell: All the examples that we’ve talked about so far today have been in poor third world countries, but there are in the Western world, in wealthier countries, there are poor people and there are poor public schools, low quality public schools. Do we see low cost private schools appear in wealthier countries? And if not, why don’t we?
42:14 James Tooley: Yeah and here, you’ll have to take what I’m saying with a… I’m pretty ignorant of what’s going on in America. My work as been mostly overseas as you’ve discussed. But my sense, from what I know is, that there aren’t many of these, many, if any of these schools. There might be a… There are parochial schools in America, but they’re slightly different, aren’t they? They’re for a particular reason. But, I have found when I was looking for these schools, I did find them in New Zealand. So that was interesting. And they were typically schools for the Maori, the Maori population, created by Maoris because the conditions in the public schools were not seen as favorable to these poor communities. And so I did find one or two, a small number, three or four, in Auckland, in New Zealand. But that’s it. So they’re not common, they’re not common. And obviously, there could be various reasons for that. One could be because the state, in a sense, has crowded out these schools. Public schools are not as bad as they would be in Lagos or New Delhi. And in any case, there are possibilities to escape those public schools. There are charter schools, there are… In America, there are charter schools. In England, we’ve got the free schools. They’re called the free schools and academies.
44:02 James Tooley: So if you like, government has allowed educational entrepreneurs to create alternatives, and in a sense, these alternatives will still be free of the point of delivery, so they will crowd out the potential private schools. And there could be a different mentality, certainly in Britain, and I think to a lesser extent in America, but in Britain we’re so used to education being provided free at the point of delivery that it is odd to question it. Whereas, in these other countries I’m working in, it’s not odd to question at all. And you don’t trust the state with much. And so, why would you trust it with education? But all this is a long sort of… I don’t know, but I decided a couple of years ago, well, it was actually probably doing talks like this or giving lectures in America or Britain, people were saying, “Why doesn’t this happen in America?”
45:03 James Tooley: And then I had some time when I couldn’t travel for various reasons in England, and so I did some market research. I am a one-trick pony and so if I can’t travel, I went out to the streets of Newcastle in the north of England, and just asked people, “If there was a low cost private school, would you be interested in it? So would you be interested in private education?” “Yes, of course.” “Why don’t you send your kids to private school?” “Duh, it’s too expensive.” “What could you afford?” And I gradually worked out a model based on my experiences in the developing world, and thought, “Well actually, I think I could create a school that more people could afford and that I could just about break even or even make a small surplus.” So I opened a school in the north-east of England in Durham, and it’s been going for just one year now and it took us an amazing amount of time to get registered. I hadn’t realized how onerous the regulations were in England. It took us 485 days to get registered.
46:09 James Tooley: And the teacher unions picketed all our parent evenings and our first days of school. So the numbers were tiny that we managed to get, but we’ve since had… The government has a mandatory inspection for all new private schools, and we passed this with flying colors. And now we’ve completed a year, so my feeling is the school that I’ve created up north has shown that it’s possible to run a school for 3000 pounds, so that’s about a fifth of the cost of the average private schools in England, and it’s also only two-thirds of the per capita funding in the state schools.
46:50 Aaron Ross Powell: How does that 3000 pounds compare to that 10% of income line that you spoke of earlier?
46:56 James Tooley: Yeah. Actually, that’s a good point. It would be more expensive. I think the average… This is not affordable by poor families in England, but it is affordable in terms of income quintiles. We’ve looked at what families have in terms of discretionary income, that’s disposable income once you’ve actually paid for all the necessities. And it’s affordable by families on the second lowest income quintile. Just about the middle income quintile it’s definitely affordable, but that’s… In comparison, the private schools in England today are only otherwise affordable by the topmost quintile and, obviously, only a small part of that as well. In the top decile they’re affordable. So, do you see what I mean? This is a different experiment. I’m not trying to find something that’s affordably the poorest, but I am trying to show that, well, that’s it’s a possible model, even possible in England where costs are a lot higher, and so on.
48:10 Trevor Burrus: Well, this raises an interesting question which we’ve been circling around. So why doesn’t this happen in America and England, ‘cause the public schools in the third world are not crowding out the private schools, they have this place they could send their kids for free. They also have some regulations, as we talked about, varies per country. And what we saw in America and the UK and, EG West writes about this to some extent, but you did see when there was a private education in America either the crowding out of that slowly by the funding of public schools or the regulatory environment becoming a crushing blow, even intentionally. Like you mentioned in India, that was a thing that my first thought is that if this happened in some states in the United Stated it’s like we can’t abide by, especially multi-faceted education system, the common schools, the common school movement.
49:00 Trevor Burrus: And so if you have a weird school that doesn’t play by the rules and educate people to be good American citizens then we should shut you down for the good of the people. And that’s the interesting question at the heart of education is that in all of your work here throughout the world and also in England, how much do you see opposition to these private schools being more about the fact that they’re not teaching some sort of agreed upon curriculum that makes good citizens out of the country, and that that’s the problem. It’s not that they’re giving a bad education, it’s that we can’t have a good citizenry without a unified education system, which is why we need to shut these down. Sure, they can learn to read, but they’re not learning to read the right things.
49:45 James Tooley: Yeah, that’s interesting, and it could be true in certain places, but as… And that could… I mean, historically you’re absolutely right. Historically in America and England and Wales state intervention deliberately crowded out the private provision that was there. This is what E. G. West and others document very clearly, and that’s pretty uncontroversial, that’s pretty clear. But remember that in the countries I’m looking at around the world, and it’s true in England and Wales as well to a certain extent, but there’s a national curriculum. There’s national testing.
50:28 James Tooley: And there’s nothing theoretically… And, in fact, this was Milton Friedman’s argument for vouchers in a way, wasn’t it? There’s nothing theoretically to say that a government can’t control education and that it also has to provide it at the same time. I mean, so you can have national curriculum. You could have national curricula and all private schools. So can you have all the schools teaching what the government wants them to teach, but still being totally private. So I don’t think that’s quite right, or at least it’s not the whole story. And it might be more true in America than it is in, say, Nigeria.
51:13 James Tooley: But I think there’s something strange going on. But education clearly is about socialization in part, and clearly governments for the last 150 years in England and Wales and 150-200 years elsewhere, have been using public education as a vehicle for socialization, and we have got so used to it, and so we just accept it that public education is the way for the vast majority of people, that it’s very difficult to question and challenge it. But I see, so I’ve done this experiment up north. I’m now getting people contacting me from north, south, east, and west in the British Isles saying, “That’s interesting. Would you like to do something in our community? Or, “Can you help us do something similar?” This is on a very small level at the moment. And I’ve had one or two people from America saying the same thing. And so my instinct, my intuition, is to say, actually, there is gonna be a movement starting here, here meaning America and England, which actually starts to emulate what we’ve seen in India and Africa and other parts of the world. It’s actually gonna be something that I might not see much of it going on in my lifetime, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this movement grows, as it has grown elsewhere, and so that we see an increasingly less dependence on the state in education, even in America, even in England.
53:01 James Tooley: But that’s all conjecture, that’s my intuition. But based on two decades of work in low-cost private schools around the world where I see them growing, this is the point. That 70% figure I gave you earlier for kids in private schools in Lagos, Nigeria, it might only have been 55-60% a few years back. It’s growing, growing all the time.
53:41 Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.