While public officials squabble and play the blame game over the failures of provincial public schools in South Africa, the private sector is stepping into the void to provide better education to students. The idea of school choice, pioneered more than 30 years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, has taken root in countries half-way across the globe — and is now crossing over and to make a difference in South Africa.
Milton and his wife Rose first saw their proposed voucher system, which allowed state money to be used by parents to pay tuition at a private school of their choice, in action in Newtown Primary School, in Ashford, England. The couple documented their experiences of Newtown for their TV series, and the accompanying book, Free to Choose. One of the chapters describes the experience of local parents prior to them getting fed up and demanding more say on how their children are educated:
“The parent goes up to the teacher and says, well, I am not satisfied with what you are doing, and the teacher can say, well, tough, you can’t take him away, you can’t remove him, you can’t do what you like, so go away and stop bothering me. That can be the attitude of some teachers today – it often is. But now that the positions are being reversed and the roles are changed, I can only say tough on the teachers – let them pull their socks up and give us a better deal, and let us participate more.”
Similar circumstances now prevail in public schools of South Africa. The schools overseen by the Department of Basic Education are housed in dilapidated buildings, have to use materials meant for others, and are forced to overpay for school supplies that are rarely delivered on time — if at all. The lack of access to quality education is only exacerbating societal problems like poverty and contribute to growing income inequality.
Those who are looking to change the public education from within are looking at the problem the wrong way around. Instead, they should drop the assumption that the state is entity that should be the exclusive provider of primary and secondary education.
If we were to describe the education market – in any country – in the normal dry economic terms, the following characteristics would apply almost universally. There’s a dominant supplier (the state) with the power to enforce market standards, including the syllabus and the minimum qualifications required for teachers. There are all sorts of barriers to entry, from copyrights on teaching materials to the abovementioned teacher qualifications.
The private sector in South Africa is already stepping up to fill this need, and writer Paul Berkowitz thinks that lawmakers should do more to give them the opportunity to do so. There are already open-source teaching materials available for free on the internet and there are visionary educators out there who are in the planning stages of opening independent schools that are free to operate outside the ossifying public education system.
The future of public education in South Africa is choice, thinks Berkowitz, and the faster those in charge accept and start encouraging that, the better off South Africa’s children will be.