Low cost private schools for the poor: What public policy is appropriate?

Recent attention has focused on the existence of non-government schools that cater to children from low-income families. These schools can now be found in the majority of developing countries, many of which have a prescribed public policy to provide free public education. This raises the question, why would a low-income family choose to send a child to a fee-paying school if a place in a free school were available? This paper will report on case studies of low-fee schools in Jamaica, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Indonesia and Pakistan and will assess the reasons for their increased demand. In the past, some have argued that development assistance agencies should limit assistance to public school sector. Others have argued that the public sector is inadequate and in many ways has failed in its ambitions to provide a minimum quality for every child. This paper will consider what public policy should be toward low-cost private schools, including the policy of development assistance agencies which seek to assist low and middle income countries as well as the appropriate public policy for national and local governments. The paper will conclude with several recommendations. One recommendation is that although children from low-income families attend non-government schools, they continue to be citizens; hence they should not be excluded from poverty assistance strategies. A second recommendation is to expand government statistical functions so that non-government schools are regularly included in the calculations of enrollment rates. Lastly, the paper does not recommend voucher or other program of publically financed school choice on the grounds that the public sector should remain the main conduit for public schooling. It does, however, raise questions as to the limits of the public sector in delivering high quality schooling and whether these limits should be more candidly acknowledged.