This may not come as a big surprise. The Economist magazine, known for its free-market perspective, supports the growth of private schools for the poor in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Did you know that Pearson, the British mega-corporation, owns a 50% stake in the Economist?

The linked article heaps praise on privately owned schools for the poor, which are proliferating throughout the poorest nations. The Economist calls them $1 a week schools.

The article says:

Powerful teachers’ unions are part of the problem. They often see jobs as hereditary sinecures, the state education budget as a revenue stream to be milked and any attempt to monitor the quality of education as an intrusion. The unions can be fearsome enemies, so governments leave them to run schools in the interests of teachers rather than pupils.

The failure of state education, combined with the shift in emerging economies from farming to jobs that need at least a modicum of education, has caused a private-school boom. According to the World Bank, across the developing world a fifth of primary-school pupils are enrolled in private schools, twice as many as 20 years ago. So many private schools are unregistered that the real figure is likely to be much higher. A census in Lagos found 12,000 private schools, four times as many as on government records. Across Nigeria 26% of primary-age children were in private schools in 2010, up from 18% in 2004. In India in 2013, 29% were, up from 19% in 2006. In Liberia and Sierra Leone around 60% and 50% respectively of secondary-school enrolments are private.
By and large, politicians and educationalists are unenthusiastic. Governments see education as the state’s job. Teachers’ unions dislike private schools because they pay less and are harder to organise in. NGOs tend to be ideologically opposed to the private sector. The UN special rapporteur on education, Kishore Singh, has said that “for-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education”.

Very likely the teachers’ unions think that teachers should have certificates to demonstrate that they know more than their students and have some teachers training. But that doesn’t fit the budgets of the entrepreneurs.

One great thing, says the article, is that investors are flocking to add capital, in most cases expecting a profit from these low-cost schools:

First, it is bringing in money—not just from parents, but also from investors, some in search of a profit. Most private schools in the developing world are single operators that charge a few dollars a month, but chains are now emerging. Bridge International Academies, for instance, has 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda which teach in classrooms made from shipping containers. It plans to expand into Nigeria and India. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, Bill Gates and the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector arm, are among its investors. Chains are a healthy development, because they have reputations to guard.

Another article in the same issue of The Economist also celebrates the growth of private, for-profit K-12 education in developing countries. The general thesis is that government can’t or won’t provide decent schools, and the private sector can and will and should be encouraged to take the place of government.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal or where it purports to be authoritative, the source is lacking. Nonetheless, an occasional note of skepticism creeps in.

For example:

Given the choice between a free state school where little teaching happens and a private school where their children might actually learn something, parents who can scrape together the fees will plump for the latter. In a properly functioning market, the need to attract their custom would unleash competition and over time improve quality for all. But as a paper by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das and Asim Ijaz Khwaja published by the World Bank explains, market failures can stop that happening. Choosing a private school can be a perfectly rational personal choice, but have only a limited effect on overall results…

That means school choice can “sort” children into different types of schools: the most informed and committed parents colonise the better ones, which may then rely on their reputations to keep their position in the pecking order. Research from several parts of Africa and south Asia finds that children in low-cost private schools are from families that are better-off, get more help from parents with homework and have spent more time in pre-school. A round-up of research, much of it from south Asia, found that their pupils did better in assessments, though often only in some subjects. In the few studies that accounted for differences in family background and so on, their lead shrank.

Chile’s voucher scheme, which started in 1981 under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, aimed to enable poor students to move from bad public schools to good private ones and to raise standards by generating competition between the two. Today 38% of pupils are in state schools, 53% in private ones that accept vouchers and 7% in elite institutions that charge full fees. In the 1990s a post-Pinochet centre-left government allowed subsidised schools to charge top-up fees. They can also select their pupils by ability.

Chile does better than any other Latin American country in PISA, an international assessment of 15-year-olds in literacy, mathematics and science, suggesting a positive overall effect. But that is hardly a ringing endorsement: all the region’s countries come in the bottom third globally. And once the relatively privileged background of private-school pupils is taken into account, says Emiliana Vegas of the Inter-American Development Bank, state schools do better, especially since they serve the hardest-to-teach children.

Where private schools trounce state ones is in cost-effectiveness. A recent study in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh gave vouchers for low-cost private schools to around 6,000 randomly chosen pupils. Four years later they were compared with applicants who did not receive the vouchers. Both groups did equally well in mathematics and Telugu, the local language. But private schools had spent less time on these subjects in order to make space in the curriculum for English and science, in which their pupils did better. And spending on each pupil was only around a third that in the state sector. Lagos state spent at least $230 on each child it put through primary school between 2011 and 2013, public data suggest, around twice as much as a typical private school charges.

So, the private schools are cheaper, perhaps because they have teachers who lack credentials and training, but they don’t get better academic results.

The bottom line on The Economist articles is that they believe in competition and school choice, regardless of outcomes, because it is cost effective.

One refreshing difference between the British perspective and their American counterparts is that the Brits frankly own up to their love of privatization and their contempt for the public sector, whereas the American privatizers hide their agenda and call themselves “reformers.”