From the Slums: a Lesson for Mother Church?

A recent podcast of EconTalk, hosted by Stanford’s Professor Russ Roberts, was an interview and discussion with Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University, who has studied the surprising phenomenon of private schools set up for the poorest citizens of countries like India and Nigeria– some of the poorest on earth.  He wondered if there was such a thing as a private education system in these slums, and amazingly there is.  Although the so-called “government schools” are free of charge to everyone, parents complain about consistently poor teacher and administrative performance.  Really bad; teachers simply not showing up for work, and principals that do nothing about it.  These ill-served parents know that the only hope for a better life for their children is education.  Necessity being the mother of invention, a disgruntled parent will simply set up a private school and recruit a few similarly disposed parents as clients for a kindergarten.  Then maybe expand to grade 1, and so on as the business takes off.  Or, a more educated person might start a tutoring school for students needing to take placement exams, and end up starting a Grade 10 school, and expanding to lower grades as they build the business.  Tooley found that around Hyderabad hundreds of private schools for the poor were operating on the fringes of “the system.”  The tuition, in western terms, is nominal– as little as a dollar a month!  Even more astounding, these small business were turning a profit.  And, the standardized test results for these privately educated children, as bare-bones and rudimentary their surroundings, beat those of the government-educated kids.

The entrepreneurial owners run very tight ships, including enforcing strict rules of conduct and readily firing bad teachers.  This discipline is certainly a key element of success, but more importantly the owners are emotionally invested in the children they serve, whereas the principals and teachers in the government schools complain about their working conditions and literally despise the poorest children for their appearance, smell and manners.  Professor Tooley’s book about his experiences searching for and finding these private schools is entitled The Beautiful Tree.

As I listened to the podcast, I thought back to my posts on the government education monopoly in the U.S. and some of the ways to break it in favor of better options (search the Junto web site for “Panopticon”)  There seems to be a lesson about innovation and free market there.  But of course, our problems don’t compare to those of the slums of Hyderabad or Somalia.

Instead, in the last couple of days I’ve wondered whether the lesson might be for the Church herself.  If she doesn’t give parishioners what they truly need and desire–the Truth, orthodox and unvarnished–won’t they leave to start their own?  Of course they will, and do, and it’s tragic.  Christians need the authentic teachings born of tradition, sacred scripture and apostolic authority that only the Catholic Church contains.  Anything less is a dollar-a-month knock off.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!


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