Money Talks – But Does It Educate?

Money talks – but does it educate?  This is American education’s sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. Or is it $64 million? Billion?  Or, how about $26 billion?  That’s the number moving through the Capitol at the moment.  (See here.)

But who’s counting? (No, apparently, Everett Dirksen did not say “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”)

What exactly an education dollar is worth is not an inconsequential topic and I started gathering string for a blog post about the newest federal bailout for teachers when I was hit by a stray thought:  James Tooley.

One of the more striking stories I have read on the subject of money and education is one I helped edit at Education Next called “Private Schools for the Poor,” written by Tooley, a one-time mathematics teacher in Zimbabwe and currently professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

I recall almost gasping at sections of the manuscript, as Tooley  took the reader on a tour of some of the poorest neighborhoods on earth.

“In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, private schools are made from the same materials as every other building,” he wrote.  “[C]orrugated iron sheets or mud walls, with windows and doors cut out to allow light to enter. Floors are usually mud, roofs sometimes thatched. Children will not be in uniform and will usually be sitting on homemade wooden benches. In the dry season, the wind will blow dust through the cracks in the walls; in the rainy season, the playground will become a pond, and the classroom floors mud baths. Teaching continues, however, through most of these intemperate interruptions.”

Clive Crook of the Atlantic called Tooley’s work “something of an embarrassment to the official aid and development industry” because he had “demonstrated something that many development professionals would rather not know—and would prefer that you not know, either.” Tooley and his research team found that “private education is a principle lifeline for the abjectly poor” and that it worked. “On the whole,” says Crook, “dime-a-day for-profit schools are doing a better job of teaching the poorest children than the far more expensive state schools

Tooley turned the research into a book, The Beautiful Tree, which came out in 2009, and should be on every policymaker’s beach blanket – a reminder not only of our own good fortune to be living in America, but of the need to constantly reconsider education’s relationship to money.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College