The COVID-19 crisis is hitting families and educational systems in the region hard. The pandemic has also had a significant impact on private schools and their community. Many families have lost their jobs and income and have been unable to continue paying monthly school fees/tuition. Other families complain that the distance education their children receive today is of a lower quality service than face-to-face education and refuse to pay the full fees. Other families, especially those with preschool-aged children, have decided to withdraw their kids from school completely, since they are essentially receiving no educational instruction.
This represents a major challenge for school systems in the region. A challenge that goes beyond the discussion of whether private education is higher quality than public education (the evidence is mixed when controlling for variables such as the socioeconomic status of families) or whether it is a service that should only be provided by the public sector because it is a citizen’s right. At the end of the day, regardless of ideological or political views regarding educational provision by the private sector, the question that policy makers should ask is: “How do we guarantee that all children and adolescents receive a quality education?”.
This question is more relevant in countries where the private sector is an important educational provider. In Peru, for example, 2.1 million students attend a private school, and in the capital, Lima, 52% of students are enrolled in a public school. Most private institutions are small, enrolling less than 100 students, and are inexpensive, charging a monthly tuition of less than 200 soles ($ 58). Most students are from middle class families, but around one-third come from lower-income families, who make a significant effort to pay tuition at private schools for their children to receive what they consider to be a quality education.
Unfortunately, as a result of the crisis, many students are likely to migrate from the private to the public sector, and this situation could imply that many private educational institutions could go bankrupt. According to Edgardo Palomino, president of Lima’s Association of Private Schools, most parents did not pay tuition in March and April.
Faced with this situation, governments must ensure that all children are enrolled in a school. To achieve this, there are a range of policy options. One option would be to ’absorb’ private school students who can no longer afford tuition in the public sector. For example, Peru is using a web based platform to facilitate the transfer of private school students into public schools. In the first 5 days there were 69 thousand transfer requests, reaching 110 thousand requests within two weeks. This strategy can be effective if there are enough vacancies in local public schools to absorb private school transfer students. Otherwise, governments must expand their coverage and access, with the implications this may have on public spending and management.
Another alternative for governments would be to subsidize private schools, introducing a voucher, such as the universal voucher Chile instituted almost 4 decades ago, or subsidizing schooling inputs. For instance, several provincial governments in Argentina pay teacher salaries in private schools. This would imply that the state recognizes private institutions as collaborators in the provision of the educational service as a public good and they agree to abide by the rules imposed by the governing body (Ministry of Education). Once the state decides to opt for this route, it must set the size of the voucher or subsidy, the minimum conditions to receive and maintain it (e.g. quality standards, transparency) to avoid the potential negative consequences of introducing a subsidy without having a system that guarantees transparency and equity. For example, the expansion of low-quality subsidized private schools.
Many educational systems in the region face the same challenges as Peru, with a high percentage of student enrollments in the private sector. For example, in Haiti the majority (85%) of schools are private, in Bogotá 72%, in Guayaquil this percentage reaches 52%, and in the City of Buenos Aires 50%. In Guatemala 8 of every 10 high school students are enrolled in a private school. In this context, many governments will have to make decisions with long-term implications for education policy, financing, and regulatory issues.
There is a risk of simplifying the issue, assuming that a vacancy in the private sector is immediately equivalent to a new vacancy in the public sector, and even if this is possible, the transfers are not trivial to introduce. These families had selected a private school, choosing to pay for a service that they could have received for free in the public sector. In the interest of the millions of students in the region that currently attend a private school, governments should not ignore the issue, and weigh the tradeoffs of the alternatives (ex. absorb students in the public sector or subsidize private schools) before they make a decision. In a future blog we will explore in more detail the policy options
Do you know of any family that is thinking of transferring their child from a private to a public school? Or someone who has not been able to pay the monthly fees/tuition over the last few months? Tell us in the comments section below or by mentioning @BIDEducacion on Twitter.