In recent decades, public-private partnerships (PPPs) and private providers have emerged as major forces in education in the less-developed and developing worlds, often supplying the lion’s share of education services where scarce resources have crippled state-run schooling. Some of the best known examples are Hyderabad’s thriving web of private schools for poor Indian students (see James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree) and the string of successful schools established by Greg Mortenson in Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains (see Mortenson’s best-selling Three Cups of Tea). A new book from the World Bank, Emerging Evidence on Vouchers and Faith-Based Providers in Education, edited by Felipe Barrera-Osorio, Harry Anthony Patrinos, and Quentin Wodon, puts this growing phenomenon under the microscope.

As part of the World Bank’s broader campaign to mobilize private sector engagement in education, this new volume builds on commissioned research and internal assessments of private-public partnerships in a number of struggling regions. An earlier Word Bank publication, The Role and Impact of Public-Private Partnerships in Education, was a primer on the theory and practice of PPPs in education, and included guidelines for running these projects successfully. In this new volume, Barrera-Osorio and his co-editors have returned to take a closer look at a wide range of private providers and public-private partnerships and to explore their effects on student performance. While originally focused on Latin American programs, the volume was later expanded to include providers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (including Korea’s booming private tutoring industry, the crowded madrasas of rural Bangladesh, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where a whopping 70 percent of schools are faith-based). The cases demonstrate just how pervasive public-private partnerships are  around the globe, especially where traditional providers have failed to adapt to shifting conditions and student needs.

The research included in this volume suggests that vouchers and faith-based programs had slightly positive effects relative to the traditional education systems in several nations (for instance, Chile, Columbia, and Sierra Leone), but the volume also includes some evidence that serves to counter an overly-optimistic view of PPPs. Students from privately-run madrasas in Bangladesh performed worse than other students when they later switched to public providers, for instance. And the positive findings for many faith-based programs were tempered with cautions from the authors about selection bias. (High-performing faith-based schools in Cameroon, for instance, primarily educate students from wealthy–and likely more academically-engaged–families, and the schools don’t have to deal with the corrupt local officials that plague state schools.)

Those looking for silver bullets will be disappointed by this volume. Context, the editors remind us, is all-important, and the incredibly diverse on-the-ground conditions faced by the profiled providers make it hard to draw broad policy recommendations from the chapters in this volume. However, this volume brings together valuable research on the important work of a growing class of public-private education providers, especially in those regions where creative new solutions are most needed.

Olivia Meeks is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Last updated February 25, 2010