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The Bottom Line Educational Freedom (Part 1): What if Low-Cost Private Education Existed?

Originally published at Real Clear Education

[Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a three-part article. Click to read Part Two: Reducing Government Control and Part Three: Education Entrepreneurs.]

The words low-cost and private education seem antithetical. With the cost of tuition averaging nearly $12,000 per year, private education is financially out of reach for most families. Of the 56.4 million U.S. K-12 students, only about ten percent (5.72 million) are enrolled in private schools. While there is a growing number of homeschooled students and students in other non-traditional forms of school — public charter schools, virtual, microschools, learning pods, and hybrid options — the overwhelming majority attend traditional public schools.

The Current Reality

On average, private school students outperform their public school peers in test scores, graduation rates, and percentages matriculating to college. This is despite public schools’ spending on average $4,000 more per student each year. The same is true for students who attend charter schools or homeschool — better academic results and less money spent.

According to EdChoice’s 2021 Schooling in America Survey, conducted from June-July 2021, only 34% of parents of students attending traditional public school indicate that is their preference. Despite only ten percent currently attending private school, 40% of all parents desire private school for their children. Furthermore, only 31% of current public school parents are very satisfied with their children’s public district school, while 72% of private school parents are very satisfied. Alas, the high tuition costs of private schools (as opposed to free public schools) keep most families in a situation they don’t prefer.

One hopeful note is that school choice is gaining record new ground in 2021, with five additional states’ implementing educational saving accounts (making the total ten states) and the expansion of private school tuition vouchers in multiple states. However, most parents still don’t have access to private schools. Many school choice funding allowances only cover a portion of private school tuition, and many are limited to special needs students or the lowest income brackets. In many cases, the total number of students eligible for these state funding allowances is capped at a small number. Today, less than one-half of one percent of students have access to a private school voucher. Even when we include all forms of school choice funding avenues and charter schools, fewer than one in fifteen students in America have access to these options.

A Question Worth Exploring

What if low-cost private education existed in the U.S.? Given the dissatisfaction with traditional public schools and the desire for private education alternatives mentioned above, it’s a crucial question.

James Tooley, in his recently released book, Really Good Schools: Global Lessons for High-Caliber, Low-Cost Education, shares his remarkable journey of discovering, studying, and starting low-cost private schools serving poor and low-income families in developing nations. A product of grassroots movement rather than central organization or control, these low-cost private schools in countries marked by extreme poverty for a high percentage of their population are a part of a global movement — largely unheard of by those in the developed world.

Particularly surprising is that parents living in poverty are opting to send their children to tuition-charging private schools when free, government-provided schools are available. The reason is perhaps not so surprising: parents desire quality education and care for their children, even if it causes financial hardship. Overwhelmingly, parents in these schools communicated that a nurturing classroom atmosphere and freedom from a “hidden curriculum” led to their sacrificial decision to enroll their children in private school. And these are not just a few outlier families — low-cost private schools educate a significant number of students. For example, in Kampala, Uganda, 84% of primary-school children are enrolled in private education.

Similar to the experience in the U.S., Tooley’s research found that “children in low-cost private schools outperform those in government schools, after controlling for all relevant background variables. And the schools do it for a fraction of the per-pupil cost.” Likewise, parental satisfaction with private schools in developing nations is significantly higher than in government-run public schools.

America would be wise to learn from developing nations and aggressively increase private education — making it available to low-income families and those in poverty, not just to the upper-middle class, wealthy, and elite.

Keri D. Ingraham

Tooley makes a key observation from his in-depth work studying developing nations: “Even though public-school teachers ‘are extremely well-paid,’ they are ‘permanent government employees with no accountability for the work they (fail to) do.” On the other hand, private school teachers must ensure student learning standards are high and must equip students with the academic knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Otherwise, parents won’t pay tuition and will instead take their students to another school.

Making private education possible for low-income families has required innovative approaches. For example, in many countries, workers are often paid daily for labor jobs or by selling goods at the market rather than by a monthly or weekly paycheck. Therefore, many schools offer enrolled students a daily “pay as you learn” rate rather than having to pay a hefty tuition payment covering a longer period of time, such as a monthly or quarterly.

Applicability for America

What can we learn from these developing world private schools? Can their experience be replicated in the U.S.? While the economic landscapes differ, the undergirding principles are universal — private education provides competition to government public schools and promotes accountability. Both of these ingredients are foundational to providing quality education. Private schools are accountable to parents for providing quality academic results, or they will cease to exist. The education monopoly in American K-12 public education, on the other hand, results in the perpetuation of a dismal status quo, which fails to effectively educate over 70% of its students.

America would be wise to learn from developing nations and aggressively increase private education — making it available to low-income families and those in poverty, not just to the upper-middle class, wealthy, and elite. It starts with putting more education dollars where they belong — in the hands of parents, who can best decide where their kids should be educated. The resulting boom in educational entrepreneurship would put the U.S. as a leader in K-12 education.

[This is Part One of a three-part article. Part Two will explore the reduction of government involvement in K-12 education.]

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, National Review, The American Spectator, Washington Examiner, The Epoch Times, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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