Myth 4: Public education is equitable

The debate about the role that non-state actors should take in education is divisive. Discussion is made all the more difficult because of the prevalence of myths circulating on the theme. A series of blogs on this site covers the 10 myths listed in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors, aiming to spark discussion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

It is common to criticize education systems that have opened the doors to non-state providers with the belief that this exacerbates inequality. Public education is associated with being free, because it is provided by the government, and private education is associated with fees, charged by non-state providers. But this is to some extent another myth that the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors tries to dispel.

The fact remains that households often incur high education costs in the form of hidden fees, avoidable out-of-pocket payments and additional expenditure to compensate for what public schools do not offer. Many public education systems fail to prevent stratification and segregation. Public education is not necessarily equitable. An index of social diversity in schools in Latin America, based on the results of the 2018 PISA, found that Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico had similar high levels of segregation, although only Chile tends to be criticized for the high share of private institutions in primary and secondary enrolment.

As the 2021/2 GEM Report shows, about 40% of household expenditure on primary and secondary education in a range of low- and middle-income countries comes from households with children in public schools. Households with children in private schools account for about 80% of spending in Guatemala and Pakistan, while households with children in public schools account for about 60% of spending in China and Kenya (see the figure in this blog).


Public schools often still rely partly on fees

While governments are expected to cover the full operational cost of public schools, some public schools rely at least partly on fees, leaving the cost to fall to families. In Lebanon, 38% of public upper secondary school students attended schools that received at least 80% of their funds from fees in 2018; in Mexico, the corresponding share was 29%. About 1 in 10 students in Jordan and Morocco attend such schools. Even schools that are fully funded by government are typically not free for parents because there are still often costs related to textbooks and school uniforms.

Low-income countries have lacked the funding to make public education fee-free. In rural areas of the United Republic of Tanzania, despite a government policy of fee-free education, more than three-quarters of families view primary school contributions as mandatory, noting that children could be punished if contributions are delayed. In Uganda, households regularly paid informal cash user fees despite their being prohibited by law. The share of rural public schools collecting fees increased from 40% in 2005/06 to 80% in 2011/12. Higher fees were more likely to be charged where there were competing private schools in the community and households did not voluntarily contribute. High informal fees in public schools, corresponding to a threshold of 4% of total household consumption expenditure, have been associated with a 13% decrease in school attendance among children from poor households but not those from non-poor households.

Even in high-income countries, where this problem is not critical, public schools also often charge additional fees. The 2018 PISA found public schools took obligatory financial contributions from parents in 7 of 59 countries and voluntary contributions in 38 of 59 countries. In Australia, parents contribute significant funds, exacerbating inequality between schools. In Melbourne, school councils can request three categories of additional payments from parents: essential student learning items, optional items and voluntary contributions. While the average parental contribution in government schools in Melbourne from 2013 to 2016 was over AUD 700, parental contributions in schools in well-off areas were more than triple those in schools in the poorest areas. A survey of school leaders in the United Kingdom found that 18% of schools had asked parents for voluntary contributions to mainstream activities. Such parental contributions had become necessary due to substantial budget cuts. In the United States, parent–teacher association revenue tripled between the mid-1990s and 2010 to over US$425 million, exacerbating inequality between schools.

When faced with the actual facts, the myth that public education is equitable is easy to disprove. Public schools sometimes charge fees. Additional costs, sometimes informal, are frequent.

This is why the first recommendation in our Report is for governments to fulfil the commitment to make 1 year of pre-primary and 12 years of primary and secondary education truly free. They need to ensure that households do not pay for education goods and services that their countries have committed to make available free of charge. Eliminating formal fees is an obvious starting point but is rarely enough, as such fees are usually a small part of total costs. Providing learning materials to all for free and not imposing costly requirements that do not contribute to learning, such as uniforms, are other necessary steps. But preventing the conditions that lead families to supplementary private tuition is likely to be one of the most decisive.

Read the 2021/2 GEM Report to find out more.


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