One of the largest defining differences between the countries popularly called ‘industrial’ or ‘modern’ and those called ‘developing’ is education. Most governments worldwide provide universal primary education, but the existence of public schools does not guarantee their effectiveness. Across the African nations, an average of 30% of school-age children under 14 can’t read. In India, it’s 60%.

The causes are no doubt many, but there’s one statistic that certainly must be a contributing cause: In a survey of Indian schools done by their board of education, a quarter of the teachers who were supposed to be running classrooms were absent. Not just absent, but many it seems had never existed at all. They drew paychecks, were members of the teachers’ unions, but simply did not exist.

Absentee or ‘ghost’ teachers and even schools are a widespread problem. Pakistan has reported discovering over 8000 state schools on the books that did not exist anywhere outside the paperwork, more than 1 in 8 of the country’s total. Sierra Leone found that 6000 teachers, more than 20% of their educators on the state payroll, were pure fiction.

These scams, it seems, are largely being run by teachers’ unions. Aggressive and resistant to government oversight, many countries have left them with no external supervision, resulting in a system devoted much more to paying its members than to serving its purpose and its pupils.

These failures of state education have directly caused a private school boom. According to the World Bank, across the developing world one in five primary school pupils are now enrolled in private schools. They face stigma, but they offer more value for the money in terms of education, and being for profit often holds them to a higher accountability. A bad private school is soon put out of business, after all.

Governments still push to discourage private education, largely at the behest of those same teachers’ unions, but they should instead be seeking ways to encourage them. A clever board of education could use the competition to force their own schools to shape up to standards. After all, every single child, everywhere, deserves a true education.

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