The problem with school choice in educating the poor in Kenya

Children study at a private non-formal school, one of about 120 in the in Mathare slum, in Nairobi, Kenya, June 2, 2015. (Hilary Heuler / VOA) Retrieved from: on 05/08/2017

What is school choice?

The term “school choice” appears in human capital theory and spreads out into capitalist politics where it has been associated with the right wing and conservatives. School choice is often linked to Milton Friedman and the free market approach. It is premised on the idea that education is a market and that market forces apply in the context of competition between schools, allowing parents to make choices based on the quality of services offered by each school. In this sense, private schools, even private schools for the poor, are competing against government schools and other private schools.

How does this work in Kenya?

Kenya has three kinds of schools, public, private and APBET. Public schools are run by the government and target all learners, private schools by individuals or corporate entities and target the rich and middle class , and APBET Schools are a hybrid model that should offer alternatives to public provision through NGOs, CBOs and FBOs, but have been invaded by private entities to some extent and are generally considered private schools for the poor. For the proponents of school choice, all of these schools are fair game, they are in competition even if they don’t know it or accept it.

What is the problem with school choice in Kenya?

  1. For you to choose, you must be able to distinguish and this requires information. Most parents who are choosing don’t have all the information they need and therefore make choices based on perceptions. Marketing and PR could easily change perceptions, and word of mouth, as markets work is also effective. In this sense, parents make choices based on advertisements, or the influence of other parents and not on concrete facts.
  2. Private providers of education owe their customers quality, but their customers don’t have any enforceable rights against the providers except in consumer protection laws as opposed to the Constitutional right to basic education that accrues to citizens with reference to public schools. Given that consumer protection laws are insufficient to partner with the best interest rule for children, there aren’t enough protections.
  3. With school choice, everyone chooses, but some have more choices than others. Accordingly, school choice doesn’t account for inequitable provision for minority groups like special needs learners, the poorest in society, girls who are left out or locked out of the education system or those who are marginalised because it is market determined. In this sense, its constitutionality as a general government approach would be challenged.
  4. School choice segregates by ensuring that the poor learn with the poor and the rich learn with the rich, and there is no equitable way to remedy this challenge. It therefore enhances systemic inequalities directly and indirectly and doesn’t account for social justice in the larger scheme of things because it is not out to make sure everyone enjoys the right to education. It only caters for those who are interested and can afford it.
  5. School choice advances the idea of accountability to the market, not the systems put in place by government. The approach advocates for fewer regulations or deregulation because the customers are the ones to determine what is good or bad and if they don’t like what is bad, they can leave. School choice expects education as a market to fix itself and have nobody with the regulatory oversight to interfere too much.
  6. School choice comes at a cost. It is a market, and this is business, so those who can’t afford it must step aside. Even for the poorest, they must pay. If they cannot pay, they are excluded. Some may argue that “not all schools” are money hungry or “not all students” are forced to pay, but the schools are premised on fees and that is the crux of their existence and from a macro-level, the approach is flawed.
  7. School choice in Kenya advances the cycle of poverty- the options that have been offered don’t attempt to break the situated cycles of poverty. They insist that the best schools for the poor are in the places where they live, where cycles of poverty are entrenched. In this sense, the poor may get education but its only as good as the market decides it is, and if the competitors are not working hard to improve quality, then there are no advancements to be expected.
  8. School choice seldom factors in cultural context, citizenship and social responsibility as part of the roadmap to success. The market approach ensures that students pass exams, if there are skills to be taught that they teach them, but it seldom enforces values education in its ethos.

How does the system favour school choice?

1. The government of Kenya has not done enough to improve the quality of learning in public schools. It invests plenty of money, but the management of the system is too vast and complex for existing government systems to harness. Teacher absenteeism, insufficient infrastructure, lack of facilities still hamper many schools and it gets worse the further away from Nairobi you go.

2. Public schools are still unable to cater for all learners in spite of the massive investments placed in them by government and school choice then becomes viable as private providers are legitimised. Even then, those who have been locked out of school for various reasons still cannot access schooling because a new barrier in the form of cost has been introduced.

3. The government is still failing in its role as regulator particularly in the enforcement of school standards, sometimes because it is poorly resourced, and at other times because it is indolent.

4. Proper training of Ministry of Education personnel is required to address the ever-changing faces of education globally regarding innovation and technology, which may facilitate the advancement of outfits around school choice that harm the system from a macro-level approach.

5. Public school systems are not responsive to the changing needs of society, especially for the poor and so the poor feel like they have to take their destiny into their own hands and find options. The options they land on are private schools targeting them and since they don’t see better, they chose what they can get, even though they wish public schools could provide quality education as they prefer them.

What do we do about school choice now that it is here with us?

1. Have information- research and aggressive, updated data collection sanctioned by government agencies is required round the clock. Individuals also need to read and keep themselves updated on changes, progress and areas that they can flag and address their representatives in parliament, county assemblies and other government agencies on.

2. Greater public investments in education, and PPP models that can be pursued by county governments with the support of central government. The main issue here is money, and so the government must figure out a better way to finance equitable access to quality education for all without selling the future of Kenyans, or neglecting them altogether.

3. I would suggest the setup of a Ministry of Education taskforce on school choice and the privatisation of education in Kenya is required to address the challenges in the education sector and to gather data, views, school numbers and develop strategies to address this growing phenomenon that is sweeping across the continent.

4. Mediating challenges the Ministry of Education is facing by involving all stakeholders in the discourse and in charting the road map to prosperity. The question we must all ask is, what do poor people need, protection or opportunity, and are these two aspects mutually exclusive? Can there be both protection and opportunity with a market approach as opposed to a welfare state approach?

The most important question to ask is:

Do poor people deserve agency in determining their future, and how is this agency mediated where they are unable to wield it, when they have fewer choices than the richer members of Kenyan society?

OR in other words,

How important are the poor to us?