European Leaders Look to Ban Foreign Aid for Commercial Private Schools

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European leaders have approved a policy calling for the ban of public development aid being used to fund private education in poor countries, in response to longstanding criticism of those programs.

The European Parliament’s resolution approved last month says the European Union’s member states must not use their funding to support “private, commercial education establishments” that do not meet their “principles and values.”

Private schools in the developing world have come under fire from some aid organizations and government leaders, who say governments should focus on more equitable approaches to backing public education, instead.

Backing privately run programs, critics say, results in impoverished families being denied access to school and fuels inequities between families who can afford tuition, fees, and related costs and those who lack the ability to cover those costs, even if they’re quite low.

“Taxpayers’ money should not be used to fund private school chains or for-profit actors in education,” said Kira Boe, of Oxfam, in a statement, as quoted by the Right to Education Initiative, a human rights organization.

“Given the detrimental impact of such schools on transparency, democracy, and quality, such funding is a violation of states’ human rights obligations and global commitments to free quality education,” Boe said.

Sylvain Aubry, of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, predicted in a statement that the resolution could affect the money flowing to some of the biggest private school chains operating in the developing world, such as the Bridge International Academies.

“It is in the DNA of the EU and European countries to guarantee education as a right and public service,” Aubry said.

Others, however, say the European policy is simplistic and misguided. Access to basic education through government-run schools in many impoverished nations is limited at best, and many of them are of poor quality.

Given the vast need to provide basic education in the poorest countries in Africa and other regions, some education advocates argue that a mix of private and public education systems is the only realistic option for meeting those overwhelming demands.

Many providers of private education are not mammoth commercial chains, but smaller operators, Aashti Zaidi Hai, director of the Global Schools Forum, a network of non-state schools operating in low- and middle-income countries, told Devex, a media organization covering international development.

“We must remember that the bulk of the non-state market is made up of local entrepreneurs who have established schools in their local community,” she said, “They are not making millions of dollars but are filling a gap in the market.”

She added that the European Parliament’s position also could dampen efforts to lure financing into global education projects.

It remains unclear how broadly or narrowly the policy’s language on “commercial” schools would affect private schools or chains of different sizes and structures.

The European Parliament is the elected body of the EU and is made up of several hundred elected representatives from different nations.

The resolution is not binding EU law. But the policies adopted by the European Parliament are designed to influence the policy of the legislative and policy arm of the EU, the European Commission, which is supposed to taken the parliament’s resolutions into consideration. Most changes in EU law need to be agreed to by both the parliament and the council of ministers.

Private schools currently make up about 14 percent of primary and 20 percent of secondary schools in impoverished nations, according to Devex, citing World Bank data. Those numbers have grown rapidly, notes the organization, and in some countries the portion of private schools can be much higher.

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