Why the poor pay for ‘black-market schools’

Across India, China and Africa, desperately poor parents scrimp to send their children to low-cost private schools, writes James Tooley in his new book, The Beautiful Tree.

Poor parents choose private schools, often with primitive facilities and large classes, because they see their children learning more, Tooley found.

A (Kenyan) father told us: “While most of the teachers in government school are just resting and doing their own things, in private school our teachers are very much busy doing their best, because they know we pay them by ourselves. If they don’t do well they can get the message from the headmistress, of which we cannot allow because we produce ourselves the money, we get it through our own sweat, we cannot allow to throw it away, because you can’t even take the money from the trees, you have to work harder to find it so the teacher must also work harder on our children so that he earns his own living.”

Another father said: “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and vegetables, you have to pay for them.”

About Joanne


  1. Sigh.
    I wish more American parents were this involved in their children’s education.
    The direct payment to your child’s educators, instead of filtering through a governmental system:
    We pick the school, the teacher(s), the curriculum, observe and maintian the facilities, donate our time/talent when and if we can, etc.
    The large class size mentioned may not make much of an impact when the parents are involved and concerned with their children’s education.

  2. On the bus between Lodwar and Kalokal, in Kenya, a young teen-aged boy asked me what I did for a living. I said that I taught Math. He and his companion (another young man) then spent the rest of the trip asking me about Algebra and Geometry. I do not think it’s parent involvement, usually, which makes large classes work outside the US (or in AP Calc. classes in the US), but student involvement. Compulsory, State-monopoly school systems force unwilling students upon unwilling teachers. Markets in education services unite teachers who want to provide a service with students who want that service.

  3. Agreeing with Malcolm. There are talented and skilled public school teachers who provide wonderful instruction to those students that really want it. The problem, obviously, is that so few really want it. Our culture pays lip service to an appreciation for education. Much of our underclass wants nothing to do with it and feel they don’t need it. Even in poorly performing schools, there’s usually a small group of enthusiastic students, usually the children of immigrants.

  4. Ponderosa says:

    I agree that STUDENT involvement is the key factor, however I don’t think compulsory schooling is the problem: it’s compulsory schooling without accountability…for STUDENTS. In California, it takes an act of God to retain a student, so students quickly learn that school can be social time all the time –no work required. Fail all your classes? No problem, we’ll pass you on to the next grade. Giving a “sting” to students who don’t make a lick of effort to learn would be salutary for unmotivated students and make schools happier, more productive places for everybody. Unfortunately, the current dogma holds that it’s barbaric and backwards to use any sort of “stick” to motivate kids. Only “carrots” are allowed nowadays. Unfortunately, no “carrot” the school can offer is as enticing as talking to your friends.

  5. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery, black or white, male or female, young or old. Violence has almost nothing useful to contribute to the education industry.

    From Karl Bunday’s site
    “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.”
    “Autobiographical Notes,” in __Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist__ (Paul Schilpp, ed. (1951), pp. 17-19 © 1951 by the Library of Living Philosophers, Inc.)

    The problem is not with incentives, in abstract, but with the incentives which schools offer.
    (Stacy): “Our culture pays lip service to an appreciation for education. Much of our underclass wants nothing to do with it and feel they don’t need it.”

    The usual State-school curriculum embodies the career aspirations of Professors of Education, as sold to the lawyers of your State legislature’s Education commmittees. These are people who got good grades in high school, went to decent universities, did well in their Education or Sociology classes, got accepted to graduate school (the professors) or Law School (the legislators), did well in grad school and passed the bar (the lawyers) or landed tenure-track positions (the professors). These people are good at school. The professors have spent their entire lives in school and the lawyers in air-conditioned meeting rooms. The goals to which they would have normal kids aspire and the incentives they offer are foreign to many normal children. You can’t eat a transcript. Training a mechanically or artistically inclined child for an academic career using the transcript as the incentive is like teaching a cat to swim using carrots as the incentive.

    Most of the world’s work is grunt-work. It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian States).

    You want to raise student performance? Offer credit-by-exam, at any time, for all classes required for advancement. Offer free time (library passes, recess) to students who finish course requirements early. Subsidize post-secondary tuition or a wage subsidy from the $12,000 + per-pupil budget which your State currently spends to operate the schools. Students will work for freedom.

  6. Diana Senechal says:

    Some months ago I met some people from Turkey who told me the public schools are being dismantled there by private entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs go around telling parents that their children don’t stand a chance in the public schools and that their own private school is better. The parents decide to send their children to the private schools–what are they to do? But according to my acquaintances, many of these private schools are mediocre and fail to live up to the hype. Still, parents persist in sending their children there because they believe they will have more opportunities that way.

    I am sure that in many cases (in Turkey and elsewhere) the private schools are indeed better than the public schools. But I do not like the entrepreneurs’ tactic of putting down the public schools regardless of the reality.

  7. In any industry, you will see advocates for one provider who misrepresent their organization and the competition. Why expect that the education industry would differ? Why expect more accurate information from advocates for schools operated by the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in your neighborhood (the government) than from advocates for those schools’ competitors? One function of a market is information generation. A single, Statewide monopoly is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls, a retarded experimental design.

    As Joanne observes above, competitors have an incentive to provide information about poor performers.