Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is an umbrella term that refers to the arrangement between a government and one or more private actors to provide a service, in this case, education. This arrangement is normally formalised by a contract that specifies the nature of the service, the length of the provision, the risks and cost that each party will bear, amongst other issues. The services provided by these PPPs vary, including: management, maintenance, infrastructure and support services like transportation, school meals, cleaning, security, etc.
Because this definition is fairly broad, I will focus on the type of PPPs whose current growth is raising most concern amongst the human rights and education communities: PPPs where private actors manage schools (contract schools, charter schools, free schools, academies, etc.) and the government pays for students to attend. This payment can be done through vouchers, which parents or guardians redeem in their ‘chosen’ school, or be paid directly to the school on a per capita basis. It can cover the full school fee or subsidise it. Vouchers can also be universal (affecting all students) or specific, targeting certain students, schools or geographic areas.
Although international human rights law does not clearly state who the direct provider of education services should be (CESCR, GC 3, §8), it indicates that states have principal responsibility of direct provision of education in most circumstances (CESCR, GC 13, §48). The Special Rapporteur on the right to education has clarified that regardless of the provider: 'the State remains both the guarantor and regulator of the right to education' (§121). He underlined that PPPs must not impede access to quality education for all free of cost (§123), and the State must regulate and monitor PPPs (§128) and allocate the maximum available resources to the implementation of the right to education (§48). Equally, an emerging treaty body practice and jurisprudence suggests that whilst public funding of private schools can exist, it can, generally, not be the only or dominant solution for a whole country (Committee on the Rights of the Child’s recommendations for Brazil or Chile in 2015).
Although other PPP models could promote the right to education, in the next section I will analyse the potential of PPPs, focusing on universal vouchers, for promoting or violating the right to education using the five criteria that we have developed to assess the compliance of private education providers with human rights.
1. Do they create discrimination or segregation, or create or increase inequality?
In theory, if well designed, regulated and monitored, PPPs should not discriminate or increase inequality. However, one of the most famous PPP examples, Chile’s voucher system, has resulted in high inequality (clearly shown in PISA results), segregation and as well as discriminatory practices in school admissions (such as parents’ marriage certificate, religious certificates, etc.). As a result, the Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised Chile’s high levels of segregation and differences in quality of education.
Equally, despite the supposed high levels of accountability of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), a voucher programme in the US, many researchers (Carnoy and McEwan, 2003; Molnar, 2001) have raised concerns about discrimination, particularly of students with special needs.
When the world’s longest-running and furthest reaching experiment in education reform involving PPPs in Chile and the voucher schemes in the USA show these results, one has to wonder what the potential violations for human rights could be in fragile states where governance is questionable, corruption is rife and accountability for private providers is either non-existent or ineffective.
2. Do they lead to fee-charging private primary schools being the only option, are they optional and do they exist in addition to quality, free publically-supported schools?
Many countries, in particular in Europe, make use of PPP formulas to support plurality in education. Some of these PPPs lead to students being able to choose schools run by non-state providers free of charge, such as specific religious schools in the UK. Other countries partly subsidise these fees, such as Spain, as well as providing a strong and wider public system that offers free education. These formulas would generally not violate the right to education, as long as they meet the other four criteria.
However, other models are problematic. Until the last education reform in Chile, PPP schools (subsidised schools) could charge extra fees, which fuelled socioeconomic stratification. With the current financing gap to meet the SDGs, many countries are looking to PPPs as a cost-effective way to meet growing education demand. Although in the best cases these PPPs are designed to provide fee-free education, questions remain about their equity effect, the geographical location of these schools as well as the medium and long term financial burden for states. Also, because of the state’s limited resources, PPPs involve syphoning funds away, increasing the risks of disinvesting in public education, such as the cases of Chile, Pakistan, India, Brazil and the US.
3. Are these private providers adequately regulated and monitored?
A worldwide review of national education laws done by RTE suggests otherwise. There is a growing concern regarding states’ capacity (and often will) to set and monitor minimum educational standards of private education providers (such as in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya or Pakistan), particularly in low-income countries and those affected by corruption. Equally, it is well-known that to be more cost-effective, private providers tend to pay teachers lower salaries, such as the Concession Schools in Colombia or PPP schools in Pakistan, often employing underqualified teachers. Teachers’ qualification and status should be part of the minimum standards that States need to enforce. Commercially driven education companies often lobby governments to not regulate the sector or do not follow existing standards.
4. Do PPPs undermine the humanistic nature of education?
Due to the market rationale behind most PPP reforms, cost-efficiency and competition take priority over enabling children to develop their potential. This often results in teaching-to-the-test, to move up in school leagues. It can also lead to hidden (and in some cases open) discrimination, selecting students who are more likely to perform well, screening children with special education needs (such as in the Concession Schools in Colombia, in the Milwakee voucher program or Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program in the US).
Citing Chile’s example, the Committee on the Rights of the Child raised concerns about: 'education being strictly evaluated according to instrumental and cognitive standards and indicators, excluding values and attitudes such as equality of rights between men and women, development of empathy, respecting commitments, participation in democratic life and respect for the environment'.
5. Is the role of private actors publically debated in line with the principles of transparency and participation?
In the case of Chile, it clearly was not, since the voucher reform was undertaken during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Yet, dictatorship or not, most PPPs are usually designed and agreed-upon behind closed doors, without a public consultation. Equally, hardly ever are they the result of a careful examination of their impact on equity - particularly on disadvantage groups. The debate, if any, usually revolves around their potential to increase choice, to save money and to raise the quality of education through competition; ignoring the previously mentioned risks to human rights.
Dr. Maria Ron-Balsera is research and advocacy coordinator for the Right to Education Initiative.