Book Review | The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley [Publius Online]

The Beautiful Tree

The Beautiful Tree  is a book about what’s right with the world. Amazingly, what is right with the world is found in the slums of Nigeria, India, Kenya, China, and Zimbabwe. The poor educating themselves without government assistance is the name of the game.

In the early 2000s author of The Beautiful TreeJames Tooley (a British educator and researcher), discovered that the slums of India contained thousands of private schools, funded exclusively through student tuition, and operating without government oversight. Told such schools did not exist by government education bureaucrats, Tooley decided he would study these schools determine how well they educated poor children.

What Tooley found was incredible. Not only did these private schools exist everywhere he searched (even in the most remote section of the poorest province in Communist China), they provided an education superior to, or, at the minimum, comparable to government schools. And they did this while spending far less per pupil than government schools (sometimes 1/9to 1/8 of government school per pupil spending). In fact, Tooley’s research indicates the more intertwined a school is with the government, the more poorly its students perform.

In line with what one would expect when comparing a free-market with a government monopoly, Tooley also found less corruption and waste in the private schools. For example, teachers actually showed up to work and taught in the private schools, while in the public schools, yeah, not so much. Apparently, even in third-world countries, teachers are notoriously difficult to fire because teacher unions exercise their political muscle and threaten politicians. Also, teacher positions are often political patronage jobs, which is never good for productivity or efficiency.

Tooley also found private schools provide a tremendous amount of philanthropy. By one estimate, private schools in Nigeria provided free education to approximately one out of every five students. Their parents were simply too poor to pay, so the school provided their education for free. This is an incredible case of the poor helping the poor without any government assistance or oversight. And this is happening right now, all over the world.

As you can tell, this book is part travel diary, part research dialogue, part free-market-in-education exposé. The personal stories of private school owners fighting government officials to stay open (a common theme in the book is how bureaucrats attempt to close schools for minor regulatory violations, such as not having an adequately sized P.E. field) are numerous and touching. The stories of poor families from around the world sacrificing to send their children to superior private schools, as opposed to inferior government ones, are truly inspiring. Conversely, Tooley’s accounts of rich, white European development experts first absolutely denying the existence of private schools for the poor, and then denying poor people’s ability to make sound education choices and educate themselves through private education, is absolutely maddening.

If you want a book that will teach you the power of educational entrepreneurship and the determination of the poor to better themselves and their children, then The Beautiful Tree  is waiting for you. There is so much to learn from this book, if we will but allow the poor to teach us.


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