“Free” does not work—even in education

-This article was originally published by Sambriddhi Acharya in The Himalayan Times on July 09, 2017.

Doing business is private (institutional) schools’ sole motive, and they overcharge students for profit maximization! This is the widely shared sentiment of general public towards private schools. However, most people overlook two things: one) the superiority of private schools in terms of quality education they deliver when compared to that of public (community) schools, and two) the implicit costs incurred by public schools – paid by taxpayers –which are largely disregarded when commending these latter schools of providing affordable education.

Public schooling is actually very costly

In private schools, parents are the sole financial contributors. On the other hand, public schools receive financial as well as in-kind assistancenot only from the government agencies but also from non-governmental organizations, international donors, and local communities. While it is easy to discern exact amount of cash being transferred from parents’ pockets to private schools, the cash flow is not as obvious in the case of public schools for they have many funding sources besides the government. Hence, on the surface it may seem as if cost per student in private schools surpasses cost per student in public schools by a large margin when in reality the cost disparity is not as substantial as proponents of public school claim to be. There are private schools that are imparting quality education on children for much lesser the cost than some other public schools. Moreover, social and economic costs of drop-outs and grade retention – frequency of such incidence is evidently higher in public schools –corroborate the fact that people have misinformed notion on the cost gap between public and private schools.

There is no such thing as free education

The purpose of public schools is to supply “free education” so that every child gets equal opportunity to attend school regardless of their economic circumstances. Yet, absolutely free education is rarely the case as many public schools are seen to be collecting money directly from parents in the form of contribution. While theoretically ideal, even this thought-to-be-free education has not delivered positive results in practice; academic performance of public schools is dismal – at least this is generally the case in Nepal. Such abject state of educationin these schools can be blamed on the absence of competition. Schools that would otherwise shut down in a competitive market are operating with financial support from the government in the most inefficient manner.

Another factor that distorts incentive to refine the quality of education in public schools is the ubiquitous political influence. Instead of disbursing funds according to the quality of education each school provides, schools that have greater political connections and influence are favored. In contrast, the only way private schools can thrive is by offering better quality than their counterparts.

And being “not free” works

Any investment is made with the expectation of a certain level of return. Likewise, when parents invest in their children’s education they tend to hold schools accountable and expect return accordingly. Thus private schools are constantly pressured to meet the expectation of parents. Conversely, direct financial investment by parents in public schools is negligible. Parents are indifferent towards intellectual development of their children, which consequently lets public schools academically lag behind. The problem with free education is that there is no incentive on the side of the students or parents to reap maximum benefit from the schools – in the form of education – as they are not required to bear expenses in exchange for this service.

Time to own failures and think about reform

Instead of focusing on framing policies that would obligate private schools to bring down their fees, the government should start working towards strengthening the quality of education rendered by public schools. Public schools that are on the verge of closing down should transfer their resources to better performing public or private schools instead of clinging onto the state resources,which could be directedto more efficient usages. Incentivizing mechanisms for public schools—such as reward and punishment system—need to be implemented so as to stimulate these schools to function more responsibly. Furthermore, private schools should be allowed to operate in a propitious environment without constant intervention from the government, which would in turn bring more competition in the education market.

There are many instances in Nepal when students have had to compromise the quality of education due to financial constraint their families face. This is a significant social cost per se. Voucher system could play a beneficial role in curtailing this cost by giving these students the economic freedom to attend the schools of their choice. Finally, advocates of public schools must keep in mind the ultimate goal of education; abundant supply of public schools does not guarantee quality education.