Children’s Right to Education Must Prevail Amid Privatization

Call it school choice, for-profit private schools, low-fee private schools, parent payments to public schools, not-for-profit private providers, or supplementary tutoring courses—it adds up to an imbalance.

Many children across the world live without claiming their right to education, even in states committed to improving education standards. Discriminatory attitudes and practices toward specific social groups, poor execution of policies, weak legal safeguards, and inadequate budget allocations present the biggest barriers to providing education for all. And now a parallel threat has become clear.

This month, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education Kishore Singh warned the global rise and lack of regulation of privatization further deepens inequality in education. In his annual report to the United Nations General Assembly, Singh emphasized that education needs to be preserved as a public good because it creates important civic and social benefits for society as a whole, and cannot be left to the market. The UN report argues that given recent dramatic growth in private education, it may soon supplant, not supplement, public education.

For example, in Morocco nearly 14 percent of students are enrolled in private primary schools. This represents an average annual growth rate of eight percent over the past 10 years. In other countries like Lebanon, as much as 60 percent of the pre-university education sector is private.

Such growth outstrips the possibility to evaluate ways that private schooling affects equity and children’s experience in school. In some cases, growth is too fast even for regulations and safeguards to keep up. While the private sector can complement public schooling, large-scale privatization leads to educational and social segregation, to the detriment of the most disadvantaged.

At the Open Society Foundations, we have supported research on the effects of privatization since 2010. Our findings echo the warnings of the UN report. Singh’s statement proves a renewed commitment by the international community to the values and ideals we cherish. If the right to education is to be meaningful, every child must have access to education that promotes creativity and critical thinking, active civic participation, and respect for diversity. This call from the UN comes at a crucial time.

Singh’s intervention comes amid heightened public debate and international attention on the topic of privatization and its impacts on the right to education. Geneva-based international human rights bodies and education advocates around the world are calling for greater information, analysis, and discussion of privatization and its impact on human rights. The Open Society Education Support Program established the Privatization in Education Research Initiative (PERI) to investigate this issue and has recently commenced a multi-country, multi-stakeholder project to refine the human rights analysis, advance national and international advocacy, and further the research agenda in this area.

Governments are grappling with the issue as well. Recent sociopolitical reform movements in both Chile and Sweden have drawn international attention to the challenges posed by the reduction of state control to the promise of more efficient, and more narrowly defined, education services. Just last week Chile’s lower house of Congress approved a bill to overhaul the country’s education system, which was one of President Michelle Bachelet’s main campaign promises.

Thousands of students have marched in recent years in Chile to demand free and better education and more public universities. This was a reaction to the inequalities generated by a largely privatized state and an almost completely privatized education system. Bachelet’s multi-pronged education reform initially seeks to put an end to profits at state-subsidized schools, and place equity and justice at the center of the change agenda. 

Behind this global activity swirl some fundamental questions. Does a market-led approach to education treat children and parents as consumers, maximizing profits by paying teachers less and building an education system characterized by standardized curricula, assessment, and instruction? This creates the potential for structural discrimination that deepens inequality and reduces education to an individual good, rather than a social one that recognizes diversity and the potential for education as an equalizer. Call it school choice, for-profit private schools, low-fee private schools, parent payments to public schools, not-for-profit private providers, or supplementary tutoring courses—it adds up to an imbalance.

Singh’s call, like ours, seeks informed discussion. We all see weaknesses in public education. But we believe we should resolve these with robust public policies, not through creating private, fee-paying alternatives.

While the private sector can play a positive role, unchecked privatization in education can further deteriorate state education. This will shunt the poorest and most vulnerable people to under-resourced state schools, increasing inequality and deepening cycles of poverty and exclusion. To correct this worrying trend, civil society movements and communities advocating for the right to education will continue holding governments to account for their legal obligations.

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