Time for SA’s charter schools

We’ve lived so long under strong state control of our lives – from apartheid’s selfish social engineering to today’s more benign “developmental state” – that we’ve largely forgotten that positive change comes mostly bottom-up – from ordinary people given freedom to act in their own best interests.

Wherever you look, academics, public commentators, analysts, and media, are consumed with political party developments, government policy, and changes to the law, as though we were beholden to these things like North Koreans.

Too little attention is given to societal progress that comes from the millions of free decisions and actions of ordinary people, the very self-serving economic actions that brought down apartheid, as eloquently summarised in John Kane-Berman’s 1990 study, “South Africa’s Silent Revolution”.

Instead of learning from this, we’re again mesmerised by what “government must do”. Maybe that’s why our debates about how best to effect change mostly end up by looking to grand plans, the latest being the NDP.

Take schooling. Despite having compulsory education for children aged seven to 15 for the first time, and despite the successes of former Model C schools, we’re not getting anything like the results we’d expect for the investment we make. But the private sector backs public schools through its social investment programmes, and taxpayers see increasing amounts of their money thrown at these.

We already, says the World Bank, use the second highest proportion of GDP among 31 emerging market countries on schools, with little improvement in their outcomes. With education our single biggest budgetary item, Treasury expects to increase its spend on this by a third in the next two years.

This happens while the number of public schools has fallen 9% since 2000, partly because we’re aging and people move provincially. It may also have to do with ordinary people opting out of the hallowed public system.

Already in 2010, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), looking at six areas of four provinces, found often unregistered low-fee private schools in poor areas making up 30% of schools in such places, against government’s national estimate of 4.3%.

A new CDE study, released this month, looking at the rather different case of private education companies starting new schools, shows a 44% increase in the number of private schools the last 13 years, with a 76% enrolment increase. Blacks now make up 72% of the private school body.

The CDE argues that we should follow the examples of New York and Chicago’s inner city charter schools, and similar programmes of state-subsidised but privately-run schooling that successfully educates poorer people in 20 countries, including Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Pakistan.

The Centre wonders why the international move to “contract schools”, where the state gives funding, support and defined goals, and allows these schools to be privately managed and to compete for pupils, isn’t even on our policy agenda.

Indeed. Britain’s similar approach under education secretary Michael Gove, has seen 45% of state secondary schools opting for the contract approach in just a few short years. They’ve boosted their average pass rates by up to 13%.
Here we don’t think to trust the wit of poor people to choose carefully between competing schools, and we maintain our faith in an overarching, unionised teaching leviathan. We are slow learners.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 13 August 2013)