Billboard ad for A private for profit school in Port-au-Prince operating in two 4-hour shifts/Kaytikal

Why Isn’t Private Education Delivering Better Results in Haiti?

Meet Ti François, a Haitian serial entrepreneur in Cap-Haitien whose past ventures include, among other things, a gas station, a dry cleaning business, and a private cemetery. A few years ago he opened Collège Nelson Mandela, a secondary school that enrolls thousands of students from grades 6 to 12 in two 5-hour shifts each day.

Ti François is hardly an outlier. Haiti’s for-profit education sector is an ode to private initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. Aspiring “school entrepreneurs” follow a common blueprint: gauge local market demand; seek funding from family members, informal lenders, credit unions, or banks; rent a building; hire teachers; run ads on the radio; and start enrolling students. State licensing, when sought, usually comes long after the school has been functioning. In 1997, the World Bank estimated that only 10 percent of primary schools and a third of secondary schools were licensed.

These for-profit schools have been the driving force behind the major increase in school enrollment in Haiti over the last 50 years, leading to an astonishing 92 percent of schools that were private in 2003. And while most private schools are officially nonprofit, a 2010 study indicated that the pricing strategies of most of them did not differ from the officially for-profit ones.

Despite the major achievement in enrollment, the quality of education in Haiti is still low and may even have decreased in the last 50 years while the education system has become more reliant on private schools. So why hasn’t a mostly private system in which for-profit schools play an increasing role done a better job of providing quality instruction?

After all, Economics 101 would predict that, assuming that parents value education quality, a market-based school system should be able to deliver higher quality education services than centrally planned systems in which most schools are public. Schoolchildren in Haiti should be learning more on average than schoolchildren in countries with a similar level of income, such as Senegal, that have overwhelmingly public systems. There are no studies comparing the education quality in Haiti to that of other low-income countries, but one could reasonably say that the quality of education in Haiti is not significantly different from what we observe in other low-income countries.

For profit schools in Haiti can also have the most unexpected names.

How could this happen? One possible culprit may be some form of moral hazard, a situation where a person acts less carefully than she otherwise would because she doesn’t face the full consequences and responsibility of her actions. Private schools in Haiti, for instance, may not have strong incentives to carefully select the best teachers they can, pay them highly enough, and adequately monitor their work so they can provide the best instruction possible given the resources available. Why? Because it would be costly to do so, while it is hard for parents to assess how much their children are learning at school. Indeed, it may be especially hard for parents to do that while many of them have received little or no education themselves. As parents have difficulties assessing the quality of the education they are paying for, schools have little incentive to invest in quality instruction. Furthermore, they won’t be held accountable when, for instance, former students fail to find a “good” job on the labor market because they don’t have the minimum skills that should come with the completion of secondary school.

In theory, parents and students could rely on how former students of respective schools fare on the labor market in order to get a clue of which schools are doing a good job teaching valuable skills. Demand for a slot at these schools would therefore increase while bad schools would see their enrollment dwindle if former students are doing badly on the labor market. A student from a low-income family in Haiti who went to a low-quality private school, however, may find many other explanations for why she is not faring better economically. She may blame the limited options on the labor market or her lack of connections in the business and political worlds as reasons for not finding a job instead of a lack of qualifications per se.

If parents and students do not see a clear link between the schools attended and economic outcomes, schools would no longer bear the responsibility for having done a poor job educating pupils. Thus, investing in quality would make little economic sense for school owners.

But when you think about it, parents seem to have a cheap and easy way to assess quality: The Haitian government administers national tests in grades 6, 9, and 12. Why wouldn’t parents and students systematically rely on these exams results when selecting a school? Schools with good results would see a rise in demand for their services while the ones with poor results would lose market share if they can’t find ways to improve the results. I know many parents who take this information into consideration, but they may have difficulties finding a slot for their children at a high-quality school, or the better options may be too expensive.

Now, with researchers like Pauline Dixon showing how private schools are serving the poor elsewhere in the world, the Haitian case may be ripe for rigorous academic study. Such research could shed additional light on what private education can achieve in low-income countries, and on what we can expect from for-profit education in Haiti.