Private school enrollment fell due to the pandemic and the most affected were not the rich

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Latin America and the Caribbean is the region of the world where more boys and girls go to study at private schools. The percentage of private enrollment, according to the World Bank, has increased since 2000, reaching almost 20% of total enrollment in 2015 and remaining at this number until 2019. A very different scenario from what happens in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where the figure has remained at 10%, or in Africa, where the share of private primary enrollment went from 5 to 10% in these same years.

In some countries and cities, its leading role is more evident. In Haiti, for example, 85% of the schools are private; in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, the figure reaches 72%, and in Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Buenos Aires (Argentina), private schools represent half of those that offer education. In Guatemala, eight out of ten secondary school students are enrolled in a private institution.

This is a rather unique situation that, according to Carolina Méndez, an education specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) office, could have two explanations. “In the region there is a perception that the private can be better, there is a disenchantment with the public. And to this is added a lack of regulation in several countries that has allowed an increase in the supply of heterogeneous private schools”.

But with the covid-19 Pandemic, the pieces moved. After doing an analysis with data from Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Peru, an IDB publication in which Méndez participated, found that in all the countries evaluated – except Brazil – the number of students attending private schools decreased compared to public ones. In Ecuador, Mexico and Peru, for example, the reduction was greater than 10%, while in Panama and Chile the figure was not so abrupt, less than 1% and close to 3% respectively. In addition, during the second year of the pandemic, migration to public schools increased especially in Peru and Chile.

To understand why the payment centers lost students, IDB experts have built several hypotheses. In Latin America, contrary to what is believed, most private schools are not elite. “Elite institutions will always exist and the pandemic hasn’t really affected them that much. But there is a critical mass of private schools that charge little and that have been impacted,” says Méndez. In many cases, parents of students in these schools had financial difficulties, for which they had to remove their children from the institutions. “In addition, with the non-presentiality, others did not want to continue paying for a service that they do not see as quality.”

In Peru, specifically, migration to public schools also had to do with the fact that the government created a strategy to receive students who left private institutions, says Gregory Elacqua, principal economist at the IDB’s Division of Education in the Social Sector and who was part of the analysis. “They opened the public sector to absolve private enrollment with various tools.” They gave subsidies, created more virtual schools – which implied hiring more teachers, but without the need to enlarge the infrastructure – and evaluated double shift options in public schools. Even in Peru there was an increase in their total enrollment.

But another key point of the analysis and one that says a lot about education in Latin America is that in all countries the private preschool level was the most affected by the pandemic. “It is an educational level that in the region we have been slow to appreciate, because it has even been the last to grow in Latin America. Our countries have forgotten to create public policies to strengthen it”, comments Méndez.

The education after the pandemic, It has been said thousands of times, it must be transformed and rethought. For IDB researchers, the results of this analysis shed light on how to do it. The first thing, both say, is that Latin American countries should regulate the private sector. In Chile, Elacqua comments, the government subsidizes some private schools, but it has been adjusting the policy until achieving one condition: that all families can apply for the places offered by those schools. “If the government subsidizes, there can be no barriers,” she adds, given the fact that some private schools sometimes apply filters such as religion, socioeconomic status, or even if the student’s parents are married.

The second thing, says Méndez, is that the public sector wonders why families are choosing private schools. “Are they offering English, extracurricular activities or demanding that I have to find a school for my son close to my house and not to my work, which would be more convenient for some?” Despite the perception, they say, public schools in Latin America are not of worse quality, nor is there a need for one sector to compete against the other. The important thing, they remember, is a regulation that guarantees quality and opportunity to access any school.

Private school enrollment fell due to the pandemic and the most affected were not the rich