Why are people apprehensive about 'private' in school education?

TL;DR: To fight resistance against 'private' in school education, improving public education system is the way to go.

School education is not supposed to be legally 'for-profit' in India. Private school sector is also heavily regulated, starting from the land to set up the school to the fee of the school. There is a tremendous resistance from a section of educationists and public at large to ease these restrictions on the private schools. Some of the reasons for support of such restrictions are discussed in my book (pdf, hardcopy) - page 150 to page 176.

This resistance is not just coming from the moral bias of viewing 'private as bad'. In fact, some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs like Azim Premji, who have made their fortune by running 'for-profit' private enterprises also advocate against considering private schooling as one of the ways to educate children. It's an interesting paradox.  It's because there is more to the story of 'anti-private' sentiment apart from the moral bias against private enterprise. 

Following are some such reasons of the reasons other than moral bias against private, which seem to make people apprehensive about the private sector in education.

1. Ensuring transparency in contracts of education service is difficult due to its nature.

Samuel Abrams of Teachers College, Columbia University makes this argument
To [Samuel] Abrams, the problem with for-profit operation of schools is not that businessmen are making money off the provision of a public service such as education. Textbook publishers, software developers, and bus operators all make money from schools and should, he said, but they are all providing a discrete good or service that can be easily evaluated. “School management, on the other hand, is a complex service that does not afford the transparency necessary for proper contract enforcement,” he said. “Without such transparency, there’s client distrust: parents, taxpayers, and legislators can never be sure the provider is doing what was promised; and the child as the immediate consumer cannot be in a position to judge the quality of service. Regular testing has been promoted as a check on quality. But teachers can teach to the test. And worse, as we know from cheating scandals in Atlanta and many other cities, teachers can change wrong answers to right answers on bubble sheets once students are done.
2. High transaction costs involved in changing schools making parents helpless or susceptible to exploitation.

Changing schools isn't as easy as changing the pen. Even if parents have the choice to move their child to another school, it's a tough decision because changing a school is not just a change in physical location of where they avail the service. The child also has to shift mentally from one setting to other, and there are numerous other factors that are to be taken into account. This can make it difficult for parents to seek accountability from schools making them vulnerable.
It is argued that lack of transparency in contracts and high transaction costs is a perfect context for exploitation if the motive of 'setting up schools' is to seek 'profits'. Health care is cited as an analogy. Some whistleblower reports of private hospitals seem to suggest that cheating is highly prevalent in private hospitals. Doctors have targets to turn a specific percentage of patients to surgeries, even if it's not required. All of this is to reap profits. However, this doesn't happen in charity hospitals. It is thus argued that allowing people whose only aim is to seek profits in contexts where there is no transparency in contracts and high transaction costs can lead to widespread exploitation of people.

3. 'You-get-as-much-as-you-pay" isn't morally acceptable.

You pay for better seats in the aeroplane, you pay for air conditioning in the train etc. However, owing to the nature of education, the phenomenon of 'get as much as you pay' is seen as fundamentally being against the rights of the child, as every child has the right to high-quality education. This is what some seem to imply when some say that they are against 'commercialization of education'.

It's another matter of the fact that the system currently in India ended up being the same, where people get quality depending on their ability to pay but this is seen as an undesirable situation and hence the need to stop it from becoming worse by restricting private sector.

4. Private because of failure of public? OR because private because it's inherently better?

Do you see any advocacy in so-called high performing systems for 'private sector education'? Probably no. It's something that seems to bother many. Why is that such advocacy being done only in developing countries by those from developed countries? They all avail access to free and quality public schools but when it comes to India and other developing countries, they advocate private instead of suggesting to fix the public systems.

It is argued that if the failure of public schools is the cause, then the solution is to fix it rather than venture into the unknown territory of private schooling system which has potential disadvantages.

5. Private as complement vs. Private as substitute

While advocates of private may argue for private being a complement, governmental support to private schools while not putting efforts to improve public schools, easing restrictions on private schools by the government appears as if private is being practiced as a substitute. Pursuing such way of relying on private sector completely isn't acceptable to some.

6. Conflict of interest

Some political leaders have business interests in big private schools. It is perceived that political leaders deliberately let public systems dysfunction by not taking any action so that their personal enterprises can flourish.

7. Private sector may become dominant, indispensable resisting any action

When governments don't put efforts to provide public services, private enterprises step in to bridge the gap even if it's for a profit motive. If this continues for long, the whole space is occupied by the private sector, people become accustomed to it, at which point any perceived excesses of the private sector are difficult to control because they become indispensable.

The recent debate on surge pricing and auto strike during Odd-Even policy in Delhi is suggested as a case-in-point. Over time, due to lack of government's action, private transport has become prevalent in Delhi and indispensable, both autos and cabs. 

In this context, when the government decided to implement road rationing policy, autos declared strike for one day potentially thwarting government's efforts during an emergency. It's nothing short of a blackmail and is indicative of situation when we promote private sector in crucial public services as a solution to government's inaction. Imagine the same in the case of schools, what if schools do something similar in future?

Relying on private sector may help in short-term but they may turn beasts in long-term. It's thus argued that demanding to fix public system should be the way forward rather than trying to promote private sector to address public system failures.

The second example is the surge pricing of cabs. Even if private sector provides better service than public, after a point, the pricing can become a sensitive issue. In such cases, any form of regulation attracts resistance and uproar. It's thus argued that instead of getting into all these complexities, try to improve public systems in first place, without giving private sector scope to increase.

It is to be noted that the entry of private sector in above cases eased people's lives but the argument is about the long term consequences of the same. At least in case of transport, there are multiple modes - cabs, autos, rickshaws etc but it's not the case of schooling making it a much more sensitive issue.

What to do?

Any advocacy to support private schools should first address above concerns effectively. At least, measures or strategies to prevent some of the plausible repercussions should be presented in the event of ease of restrictions.

1. More evidence on linkage between information dissemination and accountability

Arguments (1) and (2) regarding the complexity of education service and transaction costs can be settled by using appropriate data, which we don't have at this point of time.

For instance, evidence on - does providing information on outcomes enhance accountability and bring in transparency etc.

2. Improve public education to get legitimacy to support private systems

As evident from above, the reason for many of the arguments is rooted in the fact that government doesn't have the legitimacy to pursue any actions that may support private system, which further arises due to its lack of efforts to improve public system. Easing restrictions on private schools is either perceived as an abdication of responsibility by the government or is perceived as an act of collusion with private enterprises.

The only way to break this resistance is to improve the public education systems, gain the legitimacy and then pursue reforms to support private ecosystem.



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