The privatisation of education can be reversed. Evidence from recent education reforms in Bolivia

published 25 November 2016 updated 25 November 2016

by Clara Fontdevila and Antoni Verger, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Education privatization processes are frequently deemed as irreversible. The transformative power of pro-private and market-oriented reforms is well known. These types of reforms tend to dramatically reconfigure and redefine the governance of education systems, and they usually do so beyond a point of no return. By creating new social demands, economic incentives and private interests, once they are freed, market forces in education tend to make it extraordinarily difficult to dismantle a regulatory framework that is conducive to privatization.

Finding evidence in Bolivia

Given the enduring nature of privatization reforms, counter-examples of education de-privatization processes are scarce. There are many expectations on whether current educational reforms in Chile, the most marketized educational system in the world, will be able to reverse the historical trend of education privatization in the country. Nonetheless, Bolivia, a country that is not usually in the spotlight of global education reform debates, provides with one of the most illustrative examples of education privatization contention and rollback.

In Bolivia, private schooling enrolment has been decreasing slowly, but steadily during the last fifteen years – both at primary and secondary level. This is a trend that clearly contrasts with global and regional trends of private schooling expansion. Such a de-privatization trend is particularly remarkable because it has happened in a context of growth in access to education, and due to Bolivia’s historical reliance on different forms of private provision. Hence, public education in the country has long co-existed with an heterogeneous non-state sector, which includes private schools serving the elite, but also mixed options – most notably the escuelas de convenio (publicly funded and privately managed schools, typically under the patronage of religious denominations).

Gaining ground over the private sector

However, and in spite of the historical centrality of private provision, a series of reforms initiated in the mid-90s would have decisively challenged this state of the affairs. The implementation of different programs focused on the strengthening of public education, together with the progressive increase in state education funding, would have encouraged a substantive decline in private enrolment (see Figure 1 and 2).

Such a shift owes much to the Education Reform Act 1565, implemented in 1994, and specifically to the professionalization of the teaching force, the curricular renovation and the universalization of primary education that ensued from the implementation of the reform. Nonetheless, the coming to power of a left-wing and pro-indigenous party ( Movimiento al Socialismo) in 2006, and the subsequent reforms implemented by the Evo Morales administration, played a key role in consolidating and furthering the advances of the prior decade. Hence, the National Education Act 070, together with curricular and teacher training reform and a range of explicitly redistributive social policies eventually translated in a clear improvement of public education quality.

Dignifying the concept of “public”

This material and regulatory changes came together with a new governmental narrative that aimed to dignify and boost the status of the public sector. As we argue in this post, the composite effect of this sequence of legislative changes – which have meant an important increase in state education funding - has ultimately brought about a weakening of the incentives for private education consumption from both the demand and the supply sides, and has eventually translated into a transfer of students from private to public institutions.

One of the star policies of the Morales administration was PROFOCOM, a program for public sector teachers’ in-service training. In a way, the dignification of public schooling that came with PROFOCOM and similar investments in public education facilities meant the ‘erosion’ of the socially-perceived comparative ‘quality education’ advantage of the private sector, and contributed to make public schools more appealing. Likewise, the setting up of a conditional cash transfer program ( Bono Juancito Pinto) that focuses on students enrolled in public schools would have had a similar effect, since those families that wanted to benefit from this program had to enroll their kids in the public sector.

Market forces and regulation

The decline in private education demand fuelled the closure of private schools. Nonetheless, beyond demand side forces, there were other state regulations focusing on the offer side that also altered private schools’ operations. For instance, the fact that the government set up a fees cap in private schooling would have de-incentivized the creation and/or operation of profit-seeking institutions.

Finally, the formal agreements signed in 2009 and 2011 between the State and the Catholic Church involved the integration of the escuelas de convenio into the network of public schools. Paradoxically, while these arrangements consolidated the legitimacy and sphere of influence of private institutions, they also limited significantly the managerial and pedagogical autonomy of these private schools and made them more accountable to education authorities.


While the distinctiveness of the Bolivian case does not allow for broad generalizations, a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn from this case. First, the singularity of de-privatization as a policy trajectory can only be understood in the light of a combination of a range of educational and extra-educational policy changes. Secondly, the Bolivian case suggests that, when it comes to reverse education privatization trends, focusing on the improvement of public provision might be a more effective strategy than an explicit de-privatization plan. Creating the conditions for the transfer of students from private to public schools through the strengthening of the public system is not an easy endeavor, but avoids facing the organized resistance that is likely to emerge (from private providers, families, conservative media, the Chruch, etc.) if a given policy is framed (or perceived) as a deliberate attempt to ‘dismantle’ the private sector.

Overall, a close examination of de-privatization processes, as the one observed in Bolivia, is key in order to understand the political and social circumstances, as well as the policy approaches that are most clearly conducive to contain and even to reverse education privatization trends. Ultimately, a more structural strategy in favor of public education increases the chances for expanding public schooling demand, and ensures the long-term sustainability of such a demand.

Figure 1: Enrolment by type of institution – primary education, 1994-2014 (percentages)

Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística (Bolivia)

Figure 2: Enrolment by type of institution – secondary education, 1994-2014 (percentages)

Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística (Bolivia)

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.