Forum: Why and How the Public vs. Private Schooling Debate Needs to Change


Image of Jishnu Das

Jishnu Das

RISE Pakistan

Georgetown University

Image of Joanna Härmä

Joanna Härmä

Independent Researcher

Image of Lant Pritchett

Lant Pritchett

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Image of Jason Silberstein

Jason Silberstein

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

“Are private schools better than public schools?” This ubiquitous debate in low- and middle-income countries is the wrong one to have. The foreword and three essays collected in this Forum each explore how to move past the stuck “public vs. private” binary.

Jason Silberstein is a Research Fellow at RISE. His foreword is titled “A Shift in Perspective: Zooming Out from School Type and Bringing Neighborhood Education Systems into Focus.” It summarizes the current state of the “public vs. private” debate, outlines an alternative approach focused on neighborhood education systems, and then synthesizes key findings from the other essays.

Jishnu Das has conducted decades of research on school systems in low-income countries, including in Zambia, India, and Pakistan. His essay is titled “The Emergence and Consequence of Schooling Markets.” It describes exactly what schooling markets look like in Pakistan, including the incredible variance in school quality in both public and private schools within the same village. Das then reviews the evidence on how to engineer local education markets to improve learning in all schools, including polices that have underdelivered (e.g., vouchers) and more promising policies (e.g., finance and information structured to take advantage of inter-school competition, and a focus on the lowest performing public schools). Das’ research on Pakistan is available through leaps.hks.harvard.edu, which also houses the data and documentation for the project. The essay is now available on the Education Next website.

Lant Pritchett writes from a global lens grounded in his work on systems thinking in education. His essay is titled “Schooling Ain’t Just Learning: Controlling the Means of Producing Citizens.” It observes that governments supply, and families demand, education for many reasons. The academic emphasis on one of these reasons, producing student learning, has underweighted the critical importance of other features of education, in particular the socialization function of schooling, which more persuasively explain patterns of provision of both public school and different kinds of private schools. With this key fact in mind, Pritchett argues that there is a strong liberty case for allowing private schools, but that calls for governments to fund them are either uncompelling or “aggressively missing the point.”

Joanna Härmä has done mixed-methods research on private schools across many cities and rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and India, and has also founded a heavily-subsidized private school in Uttar Pradesh, India. Her essay responds to both Das and Pritchett and is titled “Low-Fee Private Schools Are Families’ Coping Mechanism for the ‘Global Learning Crisis’—and That’s Okay.” It outlines the different forces behind the rise of low-fee private schools and asserts that both the international development sector and governments have failed to usefully respond. Policy toward these private schools is sometimes overzealous, as seen in regulatory regimes that in practice are mostly used to extract bribes, and at other times overly solicitous, as seen in government subsidies that would usually be better spent improving the worst government schools. Perhaps, Härmä concludes, “we should leave well enough alone.”


Das, J., Härmä, J., Pritchett, L. and Silberstein, J. 2023. Forum: Why and How the Public vs. Private Schooling Debate Needs to Change. Research on Improving Systems of Education. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-Misc_2023/12