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Bringing Affordable Private Schools to the Table

By Atul Tandon and Andrew McCusker

In a recent letter directed to the G20, IMF, World Bank, Regional Development Banks, and national governments, 275 global leaders wrote:

“With over one billion children still out of school because of the lockdown, there is now a real and present danger that the public health crisis will create a COVID generation who will lose out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged. While the more fortunate have had access to alternatives, the world’s poorest children have been locked out of learning, denied internet access, and with the loss of free school meals – once a lifeline for 300 million boys and girls – hunger has grown.

“An immediate concern, as we bring the lockdown to an end, is the fate of an estimated 30 million children who according to UNESCO may never return to school. For these, the world’s least advantaged children, education is often the only escape from poverty – a route that is in danger of closing. Many of these children are adolescent girls for whom being in school is the best defense against forced marriage and the best hope for a life of expanded opportunity.”

Put simply, we are facing an educational catastrophe that could impact families for generations.

Global leaders and governments are rightfully advocating for and pursuing increased investment and support for public education, but this won’t be enough to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. To truly address the challenge ahead of us, affordable private schools must also be part of the conversation.

Currently, there are more than 1.5 million private schools in low and medium-income countries. Most are operated by sole proprietors, not school chains, and nearly all of them have faced months-long closures due to the pandemic.

These schools are small businesses, managed and led by education entrepreneurs who are facing the same economic pressure as their fellow business owners in other sectors. But unlike a shopkeeper or a seamstress, these private school proprietors around the world are responsible for educating 421 million children—children who currently face the same risks of lost learning time and potential drop-out as their peers in public school.

Without government support, affordable private schools, which rely on low-cost termly school fees to cover operational costs, including teacher salaries, rent for buildings, and loan repayments, are at great risk of closing permanently.

It’s an outcome that we are already seeing play out in some of the schools Opportunity International partners with around the world.

One school leader in Kenya could no longer cover the cost of her rent after several months of closures, which meant no school fees and no other income. Her landlord sent a crew to dismantle the school, wall by wall, while she watched. She doesn’t have another option for a building, so even when restrictions are lifted, her students won’t be able to return to their school.

Her story is representative of the fates of so many school owners who are watching any savings they had disappear as they wait for restrictions to lift. While government schools will face tremendous challenges upon reopening, they have confidence that they will, indeed, reopen. Affordable private schools, on the other hand, are not so lucky. They require cash flows to remain in operation—and without students in classrooms, that income has dried up.

The impact these closures could have on students is massive. Over 400 million children rely on private schools for their educations—and we know that education is central to children’s future success; the longer they stay in school, the greater their earning potential, health, and opportunities.

Research by Peet, Fink, and Fawzi (2015) demonstrated that “each additional year of education generates an increase in earnings for a child above their household’s current income level.” Yet despite these proven advantages, we have learned from past crises that once students leave school, it is difficult to get them to return, even when the school reopens. The challenge of re-enrollment is made even more severe when students have to find a new school because their original one shut down. Following the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 that forced prolonged school closures, for example, many children, especially the most vulnerable, never returned to school.

Already, temporary school closures are expected to have a huge impact on students’ long-term success and earning potential. But if affordable private schools close permanently, creating even fewer educational options for already vulnerable students, the likelihood of permanent school drop-outs could increase dramatically. The resulting impact on their lives—and their ability to overcome the cycle of generational poverty—will be astronomical.

One of the groups likely to suffer most from those closures is adolescent girls. Girls have always faced additional social and cultural hurdles when it comes to education, but in the context of the pandemic, these challenges have multiplied. We are beginning to see reports of increases in teen pregnancy during the shutdown, which have been partially attributed to school closures, economic desperation, and increased risk of abuse.

If a girl’s local school closes permanently, she is at even greater risk of never returning to school—and instead getting pregnant, getting married, or staying at home to help her family.

As journalist Neha Wadekar noted in a recent report, “School closures have cut off girls from teachers who can sound the alarm in suspected cases of abuse at home, and students have been left idle and often unchaperoned by busy parents … Of pregnant teenagers who survive childbirth, nearly 98 percent drop out of school.”

For girls especially, we need as many education options as possible so that they can stay in school, continue learning, and delay pregnancy and marriage. One of the critical players in this education ecosystem is affordable private schools. 

Solving the enormous education challenges ahead of us will require all of us to work together. In addition to creative thinking from governments, major public school investment from international agencies, and support of national school systems, we need a growing complimentary non-state sector that attracts private capital. Public and grant capital investment alone simply won’t be enough. 

As we continue to weather the pandemic and develop plans for the future of education, we must bring affordable private schools to the table. We have elevated these important voices for years through our work with Opportunity International’s EduFinance program. We have seen the incredible potential and power of affordable private schools—and we are doing everything we can to support and guide our partner schools to stay afloat during the shutdowns. But the future of education rests on all of us. 

As we work to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (SDG 4), we know that affordable private schools must be part of the conversation. Schools are at risk of closing for good— and hundreds of millions of children’s futures are on the line.

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