BANGKOK, August 15, 2010 -- In 1995, Colombia began providing places in private secondary schools for students from low-income families, using a school voucher program. Four years later Bogota started paying per-pupil grants to 25 purposely-built public schools being managed by private organizations, known as concession schools. Both of these programs attempted and largely succeeded in expanding access to quality schooling for disadvantaged children and youth.
These programs are two examples of an approach known as public-private partnerships (PPP) in education. This approach allows private organizations to complement government efforts in providing education services, increasing the chance for poor girls in developing countries to receive education, and improving the quality of learning for students at all levels.
Public-private partnerships in education are catching the attention of policy-makers worldwide.
Evidence suggests that, if done right, the approach can improve both the access to basic education for poor children and the quality of tertiary education. The latter has proven to be important for not just an individual’s lifelong learning, but also for a nation’s social and economic progress.
To date, there are more than 90 education public-private partnership programs in 50 countries, serving both high- and low-income families.
The popularity of these programs indicates a growing recognition that, though education is and always will be a government responsibility, government needs not be the sole owner or manager of schools, nor even provide the education itself.
Rather, government can achieve more by becoming just the “buyer” of the education services while ensuring the quality of services and infrastructure provided by private organizations.
Approach is Alternative to Public Financing and Delivery
The concept of public-private cooperation recognizes the existence of alternative options for providing education in addition to the traditional public finance and public delivery. One way to put this concept to work: governments continue to drive national education policy and provide the subsequent financing, while turning to the private sector to deliver education services under contract. These contracts typically specify the quantity and quality of education services to be delivered, establish an agreed price and term, and feature both performance rewards and non-performance sanctions. The same approach can be applied to contracts to build and maintain school facilities on a long-term basis.
Many OECD countries transfer public funds to private schools either directly or through subsidies under the voucher program to families, which then send their children to a school of their choice. In some developing countries, governments transfer public funds to private schools by paying teacher salaries, supplying textbooks, or by paying the schools per the number of students admitted.
As demonstrated by Colombia, well targeted programs work. Colombian students awarded the vouchers are able to enroll in good private schools, and those from poor backgrounds are able to stay in school longer. These students also perform better academically and are more like likely to go on to college than similar students not included in the programs.
Further evidence comes from the Netherlands whose students rank very highly in all international assessments compared with other OECD nations. This success is due largely to government policy that allows public funding for privately-managed schools. This policy has also increased competition in the school system and led to overall improvement in the quality of education.
May Help Address Challenges in Thailand's Education Sector
Like other middle-income countries, Thailand is pondering whether public-private cooperation could respond to its current social and economic needs.
Thailand has done remarkably well at improving access to primary and secondary education, and the numbers of students going to college in Thailand are comparable with other East Asian countries.
However, Thai experts recognize many remaining problems. These include the basic quality of education; the widening gender gap at secondary and tertiary levels; the regional disparities in access to college; and the worrying socio-economic distribution of education, whereby only 5 percent of the poorest students attend college compared with 50 percent of those from wealthier families. Together they present a new set of challenges for Thai policy-makers.
While there are many possible approaches to deal with these challenges, public-private cooperation in education services deserves a closer look in Thailand, where quality of education is increasingly
In a recent study on the Thai higher education system, the World Bank suggested that dealing with the access, equity and quality challenges outlined above would require not only public resources and leadership, but also innovative programs and initiatives from the private sector.
In developing such initiatives, Thailand could draw on international experience with the use of contracts in education to ensure the quality of private sector performance. Thailand could also use private sector contracts to help deserving low-income students enter high quality institutions. The contracts could also be designed to improve available education in disadvantaged regions.
Public-private partnerships in education do not necessarily solve all problems. Studies suggest that some partnerships may lead to students being segregated by income level and academic achievement, with no overall improvement in average academic achievement. Other studies suggest that large-scale voucher programs may benefit only high-achieving students, and that not all parents may choose their children’s schools based only on academic criteria. While private participation in primary and secondary education has increased significantly over the last two decades through various contracting models, there is not yet enough rigorous research on the effects of contracting in education to be able to draw many definite general conclusions.
However, public-private education partnerships have provided real and tangible benefits in many cases. Thailand’s education system is facing numerous challenges. Overcoming these impediments will be important to the future lives of Thai students. It will also be vital for the continued growth of the Thai economy. Public-private education partnerships specifically tailored to Thailand’s social and economic circumstances could be an important tool in meeting the nation’s challenges.