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One of the noteworthy attempts to improve the quality of education in the developing world is the “private schools for the poor” movement. Pioneered, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say uncovered, by Dr. James Tooley, private schools for the poor have been thriving in many developing countries (as Tooley documented in India, Nigeria and Ghana among other countries). In these cases, despite the fact that public schools were nominally free, poor parents were routinely sending their children to private schools instead. How is this possible? The schools themselves charged very low tuition, typically between $20 and $40 per school year depending on country and context. These fees were enough for the schools to deliver an education of high enough quality that poor parents were willing to pay. Remarkably the fees were high enough to enable many of the schools to offer scholarships or reduced tuition to the poorest of the poor.

The private schools for the poor model has been gaining a lot of traction among education funders. For instance, the Omidyar Network is backing Bridge International Academies which is building franchised for-profit schools in Kenya and elsewhere across Africa that charge $4 per month. The theory that makes private schools for the poor so attractive is that if parents are paying for their children’s school they will have much better ability to demand a quality education (far more power than poor parents typically have in the public school system). What research as been done so far indicates that these for-profit schools outperform their public counterparts (though a great deal more research is necessary).

But as always, there is reason for caution. This week the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative office of the US Congress, examined the behaviors of for-profit higher education institutions in the US. They found some decidedly unpleasant behavior—hiding real prices, pressuring potential customers, concealing information about graduation rates and job prospects, and encouraging applicants to falsify their applications for federal education aid.

While the GAO findings by no means are reflective of the behavior of private schools for the poor around the world, they do point to important possible outcomes that social entrepreneurs, education funders and policy makers need to keep in mind. Parents cannot hold schools accountable if they do not have access to the information they need to judge school performance. The same incentives that push for-profit schools to deliver a quality education can also push them to obfuscate and mislead parents. Indeed, one of the few studies to examine parental choice of schools among poor parents in the developing world (in Pakistan) has found that criteria of cost, distance and quality of facility outweigh quality of education. The best explanation for this behavior is that parents simply don’t know how to evaluate education quality (which is true of parents around the world for the most part.)

It’s therefore incumbent on those trying to use the private schools for the poor model to improve education outcomes to do their best to ensure accountability and transparency on the factors that really matter. Most importantly, all programs need to be designed with outside governance that can ensure that good incentives aren’t leading to bad behavior.

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