The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley, Cato Institute, 2009, 276 pages.  The author’s experience prior to writing this book includes teaching in secondary schools in Zimbabwe soon after their obtaining independence from Great Britain, followed by a stint teaching the Philosophy of Education at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, and return to England to obtain a PhD in Education.  He became a professor of education until the start of the new millennium when he accepted a commission in the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to study private schools in several developing countries.


His first assignment was in Hyderabad, India.  Early in his tenure there he stumbled on scores of undocumented “private” schools in the slums supported entirely by tuition of a few dollars per month per pupil paid by very poor parents in hopes of providing their children with a better life.  In the course of carrying out his duties for the World Bank in India, Ghana, and Kenya, on his own time, he found that approximately 80% of the poor in cities and 30% in rural areas were paying for their children’s education quite similarly to his discovery in Hyderabad.


Subsequently, after endless denials by local bureaucrats that these private schools even existed, James Tooley obtained grants, notably from the Templeton Foundation, to hire an army of local graduate students to survey these undocumented schools and test 24,000 4th graders from randomly selected private schools and students from the nearest public schools to compare their academic achievements.  The students of the undocumented schools significantly outperformed those of the nearby public schools and nearly equaled the scores of students from the private schools for the local elite at a fraction of the cost per student in both other types of schools.  China was a special case in that the public schools were quite adequate except in a few remote areas, where conditions resembled those throughout India and Africa.  The only detail in which public schools consistently bested the undocumented private schools was having adequate sized play areas available for students.


Interviews with parents explained these unexpected findings—the parents visited the schools and removed their children from non-performing ones (this happened to include almost all the public schools).  To me it is heartwarming that poor, uneducated parents all over the world could be so savvy.  It is reminiscent of neighbors on our frontier deciding that they needed a school and hiring a teacher.  Accordingly, the author’s prescription for enhancing educational opportunities worldwide emphasizes vouchers provided by government for families to take to schools for payment.  This reminded me of how controversial vouchers are in present day Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  One of the reasons given is that the value of the vouchers in Milwaukee is determined by dividing the cost of education in the public system by the total number of students.  This is unfair to Milwaukee public schools because they are required by un-funded federal mandates to provide very expensive education for more and more of the severely handicapped none of whom are educated in the private schools.  This could be corrected by some simple arithmetic.  (Milwaukee includes the value of school buildings as costs also inflating the value of their vouchers beyond reason!)


James Dooley is no longer “plowing a lonely furrow.”  While he was finishing the book he received a prize offered by the Financial Times and the Intenational Finance Corporation “...based on research that would help move forward understanding of how the private sector could assist development and how this might open up opportunities for investment.”  He was flown to Singapore in September, 2006, to pick up the prize at the annual Governors’ Meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  He is now president of Orient Global’s newly created $100 million Education Fund aimed at investing in private education in emerging economies.  Let us all hope that results will follow as simply and as inevitably as The Beautiful Tree depicts.  


John A. Frantz, MD

August 26, 2009