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KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark. Private schools aren't just for the rich. That's according to James Tooley. He's a Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University in England. He's also the author of a book called ï¿½The Beautiful Tree.ï¿½ It's published by the Cato Institute, the Libertarian think tank in Washington. Tooley spent years exploring why poor parents in places like India, Africa, and China, are giving up a free education and paying for a private one instead. He says he was surprised to learn how often that happens.
JAMES TOOLEY: I believed what everyone believes, that you can only improve the poor children's lives through public education. And it was only through the course of my experience over the years that I came to realize there was an alternative. I found these local private schools, and suddenly they seemed part of the solution. I went into the slums of Hyderabad in India just with a hunch I would find something. Almost like the first street corner a private school that was serving very poor parents ï¿½ let's be very clear about that. We're talking about daily laborers, we're talking about rickshaw pullers, we're talking about women who sweep the streets at night. Those sort of parents were sending their children to these low-cost private schools.
CLARK: Well, we actually want to go to one. We sent reporter Tinku Ray to one of the private schools in Delhi, and we're going to hear a little bit of what she saw there.
TINKU RAY: So can you explain the class and what are they learning right now?
FERNANDO KUMAR PRIE: They're learning English ï¿½ A, B, C, D. My name is Fernando Kumar Prie. I run a school named [INDISCERNIBLE] Public School. Those who send their children to us are not educated. They are concerned that their children get education. And the second thing is that they want their children should also learn English. English is already recognized as the modern language. Professions are becoming very competitive. If you go to private sector, then you have to prove your skill, and there language is main [INDISCERNIBLE].
CLARK: We were just hearing there at one of these private schools in Delhi the sense that education really is important no matter what we're willing to sacrifice for it. As you describe in the book, these schools are extremely grassroots. And describe the conditions of some of these schools. I think I recall one of them seemed to grow up in a chicken coop in one of the inner cities?
TOOLEY: An old chicken farm in ï¿½ this was in a poor area of Hyderabad. You've got these entrepreneurs who will just take over the buildings that are accessible. And in the shantytowns in Africa, you will see these buildings are rather similar to where everyone live ï¿½ maybe slightly improved from where people live. So people will live in cardboard or tin shacks; the school will be a cardboard or tin shack. They won't look great. People come in there and say, ï¿½These schools are terrible. Look at these conditions.ï¿½ The parents will tell us, ï¿½Actually, they're better than where we live.ï¿½
CLARK: Dark, dirty, smelly places?
TOOLEY: Well, sometimes dark, sometimes dirty, sometimes smelly, yeah ï¿½ like the slums themselves.
CLARK: Do these private schools offer the quality of education that will allow these children to pull themselves out of poverty? Will that ultimately help lift the entire community out of poverty?
TOOLEY: Yeah. That is certainly my guess. We haven't got any data on this yet, but certainly stories after stories you hear stories of these children going to these low-cost private schools, going into college, getting jobs in some of the burgeoning sectors that are there in India and Africa, the call centers, for example, and back office outsourcing. Jobs like that. These children will go into these jobs.
CLARK: One of the biggest challenges you seemed to have in learning about these private schools was the fact that local officials wouldn't even acknowledge their existence. And I'm thinking of the case in Nigeria of, is it Dennis Akoro who used to be one of the chief inspectors?
TOOLEY: Inspectors in Nigeria. There's a curious ï¿½ I don't know what you'd call it ï¿½ way in which government officials will only talk about public schools, aid people will only talk about public schools. Do they not know about these schools? That's certainly one possibility. Certainly the case you've given ï¿½ this great man had not visited.
CLARK: He didn't believe you. You actually got him to come to the school you had been working at.
TOOLEY: He came to ï¿½ well, there were 32 schools in that slum area. He hadn't been to that slum area before. And that's actually quite common. Maybe it's true here. Maybe it's true that middle-class people don't go to poor parts of Boston. I guess that's true in London or wherever. It takes an outsider sometimes to say, ï¿½Well actually, there are slums there, and if you go into them, you will find these private schools. ï¿½
CLARK: Well, I liked Dennis Akoro's comments. He said something to the effect, ï¿½Well it can't be a private school because the poor have no money. So how can they pay?ï¿½
TOOLEY: And that's the phrase that people in the development world use now, ï¿½pro-poorï¿½. And they would say, ï¿½Well, I private school can't be pro-poor because it charges fees.ï¿½ But there was one parent who had taken his child from a private school in the slums of Kenya and taken his daughter to the public school when it became free in Kenya in 2003, and then got disenchanted, taking her back to the private school. He told me, ï¿½If you go to the market and you're offered free fruit and veg, they'll be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.ï¿½ Many poor parents will say, ï¿½We want to pay because that keeps the school accountable to us.ï¿½ That sounds like pro-poor to me.
CLARK: James Tooley is an education scholar. His book is called ï¿½The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.ï¿½ Thanks a lot for coming in.
TOOLEY: Thank you very much.