Private versus public debate

Private versus public debate

Do private schools produce better learning outcomes than the public schools? Are they more efficient compared with the public schools? How should the policy respond to the growth of private schools? These and similar other questions have been repeatedly raised in the last decade or so -- and considerable resources have been spent in answering them.

The result of these efforts, largely supported by large multilateral and bilateral donors, is a public-private debate in the country.

But are the public-private comparisons helping the public to know what they did not know already? Is this debate helping Pakistani state to get all children in school with no cost to parents, as promised in the constitution?

That the private schools are better than public schools is a no-brainer. We have known this all along. Our parents knew this too, which is indeed why they sent us to private schools. And so the parents of those whose education has not prepared them to read these pages. They just did not have enough resources to send their children to private schools.

All parents would like to see their children go to private English medium schools, only if they had the resources to do so.

We have also learnt from research on private schools that there is a growing and dynamic private school market out there. The good things that are supposed to happen under free exchange of goods and services are also happening in this education marketplace. In a competitive environment, the entrepreneurs work hard to improve the quality of their services and reduce the costs. The studies on private schools tell us that this is indeed the case and competition in the education industry is making private schools better and more affordable.

Voucher schemes are limited in scale and largely, if not wholly, unsustainable since they are funded by loans and foreign aid.

We have also learnt that information products about the performance of schools can help them offer better and cheaper services -- simply because they know that the potential consumers of their services have comparative data on the products produced by different providers. If you have compared the prices and features of different smart phones to make the right choice when buying your last handset, you will know what I am talking about.

So, in a nutshell, private schools have several market-driven mechanisms that work to improve their quality. We have also learnt that public schools are not as responsive to such stimuli.

We are told that a free market does not seem to need a lot of policy [or governing]. Leave everything to the unfettered transactions between the schools and the parents and the market will balance things out over time through its self-corrective mechanisms. Parents will eventually find the schools they need and can afford. The state’s only job, if there were to be any, would be to establish the right environment for the free exchange of educational services.

Given so much evidence about its efficiency and increasing affordability, who wouldn’t think that a thriving education industry could indeed be the solution to the myriad problems that have vexed our education system for decades?

All of this sounds good when it isn’t. Given what we know about the promise of the affordable private schools, there should be little justification for the state to intervene in education sector, except that it must do so to survive and reproduce itself.

Modern states assert, as did Jinnah in 1947: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State." But they would never suggest this to their populations: "You are free; you are free to go to your own schools, you may read anything and everything -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State."

A nation state is not just an economy. More importantly, it is a body politic. Political and social fragmentation is its nemesis and a strong state takes all necessary measures to prevent it from happening. Economy can always be revitalised but political fragmentation is much more difficult to recover from and can potentially destroy the body politic. Who should know this better than the Pakistanis?

Most successive governments in Pakistan have had laissez-faire policies toward private schools. As a consequence of these policies and due to a huge demand for education, the private education industry has registered impressive growth. Yet, if you look at the larger picture, this growth in the number of private schools has taken place in tandem with an equally rapid social and political fragmentation in the society.

I do not claim that private schools are the only cause of this fragmentation. All I am saying is that, if anything, the growth of private schools should be read as a possible symptom of a malignant disease in our society instead of being seen as great success.

While the enthusiasts for private education tirelessly draw the attention of policymakers in Pakistan and abroad to the relatively superior achievements of private school students in science, math, and literacy, they seldom examine the social and political costs of private schooling. Is this not high time for us to take a look at the ways in which students leaving different kinds of unregulated private schools, including madrassahs, are being readily absorbed by various centrifugal movements that are tearing this society apart?

Yet, this possible connection between social fragmentation and the rise of free market remains, at best, an informed guess. There is nothing that I can learn about the social and political consequences of the private school market from the comparative studies of public and private schools. The questions about the social consequences of private education are not even asked, much less answered.

It would have been fine to continue to invest our efforts in comparing public and private schools if we -- the state and the civil society -- had reached a consensus that state’s role in education did not make much sense and that it was best for the society to help the state withdraw from this sector. If so, it would have been fine to use these comparisons to influence the state to spend public funds to support the development of private education markets. Indeed the big multilateral and bilateral donors are already using these comparative studies to justify their support for education voucher scheme in Punjab, for example.

But we never reached such consensus, at least in our rhetoric. In fact, we did quite the opposite. We supported the 18th Amendment, whose article 25A declared free and compulsory education as an inalienable right. We celebrated the inclusion of this article in the constitution, congratulated each other when this happened, and campaigned for necessary legislation to fulfil the new constitutional obligations.

But while we celebrated 25A in our rhetoric, we abandoned it in practice. Education can never be free and compulsory if it is to be offered in a private sector. We should recognise that 25A was not motivated by charitable intentions but, more importantly, by the stake of state in creating and preserving social cohesion through free and compulsory education.

As long as the logic of using public funds on private educational institutions upheld the constitutional obligations, our support to them would have been consistent with our rhetoric. However, this could only happen if we universalised some sort of a school choice programme where the money was made to follow children in whichever schools they chose to enrol.

But this is not what is promised by the current voucher schemes, which are funded mainly by multilateral and bilateral donors and operated by education foundations across the country. These voucher schemes are limited in scale and largely, if not wholly, unsustainable since they are funded by loans and foreign aid. Such time-bound voucher schemes can, at best, be seen as devices to stimulate a private school market and keeping it in operation for a limited time until the funds dry out. It is not a mechanism to ensure free and compulsory education.

If we want to uphold the constitution, which we must, then I am not sure how and what we are learning from the public-private comparisons is helping the state take the necessary steps to guarantee the RTE (Right to Education). RTE can only be ensured by either completely disinvesting the public sector, universalising the vouchers, and ensuring that all children are enrolled in private schools, or by stopping the use of public funds to jump start the private schools through time bound and unsustainable voucher schemes -- and investing wholeheartedly in improving the public schools.

Perhaps, its time we spend less time on comparing the relative achievements of public and private schools and more on thinking about how to secure RTE in both letter and spirit. Only if the intentions, as well as consequences, of producing such comparisons were somehow helpful in getting Pakistani children their right to free and compulsory education, would they make some sense.

Private versus public debate