research institute for compassionate economics

A privatized public school

Written by Diane Coffey on January 2nd, 2012
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Last week, I wrote about our trip to a village on the border of Madhya Pradhesh and Uttar Pradesh, south of Allahabad city. The day was so full of interesting stories that I’m going to share another one.

We hadn’t seen a government high school in stone miners’ village where we met the young woman with polio in the last post. So, we had asked people where children from that village could go to high school. They said that there was a high school in a neighboring village, which we went to see.

When we arrived, the first thing we noticed in the rather large complex of classrooms was a board, proclaiming the name and affiliation of the school. The board said that the school was a Hindu private school, but the facilities looked remarkably similar to government built facilities, down to the hanging red pots of dirt, which could be used to extinguish a fire.

We asked some teachers, who were washing up at a hand pump in front of the school, whether it was a government school or a private school. They replied that it was a private school, and we found out that tuition was 1000 rupees, or about 20 US dollars today’s exchange rates, per year.

When we poked our heads in the classrooms of the school, we found them to be well maintained; most of them contained desks and a blackboard. One room even claimed to be a biology lab. Though there were no classes the day that we visited (it was a Sunday), it looked like the school opened regularly.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the private school that seemed to squatting in government facilities. The fact that the private school was able to take over the school building suggested that government teachers where not coming to school anyway, or had been part of plan to privatize the school. Government school teachers, especially in remote rural areas like the village we were visiting, are often absent from school. Indeed, as Chaudhury et al. illustrate in their paper, the absence of government service providers from their work is a problem in many poor countries.

So maybe it was a good thing that someone was providing at least some secondary education in the village. On the other hand, there were probably children who could not afford the private school tuition. Religious minorities and low caste Hindus might have been dissuaded from attending the school due to the right-wing Hindu political orientation of its administrators. Finally, the presence of the private school would have made it difficult for anyone in the village to complain about the poorly functioning government school. After all, those running the private school had a strong incentive to make sure that government higher ups did not find out that they were using the government facility.

We would have to know a lot more about how the school came about and its consequences for children in the village in order to know whether or not it was a doing more harm than good, or the best of two bad alternatives.