Worlds of Education

Policy design matters. Assessing Public-Private Partnerships in Education

published 18 July 2018 updated 18 July 2018

By Clara Fontdevila, Antoni Verger & Mauro Moschetti, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

For some years now, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been promoted as an innovative and promising policy approach, suitable to address a variety of purposes that range from improved quality to innovation, but that also include increasing access to education, equity and cost-effectiveness.

Since the early 2000s, education PPPs have been gaining currency within international development circles. The World Bank is one of the most prominent proponents of PPPs in education, but PPPs have eventually become central to the agendas of a wide range of aid agencies and international organizations.

Nonetheless, education PPPs constitute an exceptionally broad and heterogeneous policy category and, for this reason, the general assessment of their impact is particularly challenging. PPPs are not only expected to serve a wide range of goals, but PPP schemes differ notably in the institutional arrangements they rely on, as well as in the mechanisms they set in motion.

On the one hand, in education, PPP contracts can crystallize in very different policy modalities, including voucher programs, charter schools or public subsidies to the private sector. On the other hand, each of these PPP modalities can internally differ importantly according to policy design options.

The key design variables in PPPs include the scope of the program: universal or targeted, the type of partnering institutions: for profit or non-for profit; individual school providers or school chains, or regulations concerning whether student selection and tuition add-ons are allowed within PPP frameworks.

Since differences in policy design trigger off contrasting and even divergent dynamics and courses of action, the impact of different PPP arrangements is also likely to vary – both in terms of scale and direction.

The impact of program design

The case of vouchers is particularly illustrative of such dynamics. Overall, and according to the results of a scoping review of 199 impact studies on PPPs we conducted recently, empirical research on vouchers appear to report on positive effects more frequently than other PPP modalities.

By effects, we refer here to a wide range of impact dimensions, including student achievement, equity and inclusion, teachers’ and families’ satisfaction, and pedagogical innovation. As shown in Figure 1, vouchers constitute the only PPP modality in which papers reporting on positive results are not outnumbered by studies reporting on a negative impact.

Figure 1 (n=199)  

However, a very different picture emerges when we consider the differences among varieties of voucher programs. As shown by Figure 2, universal and targeted voucher programs yield very different results. Targeted programs (i.e. voucher programs that target a very specific social group) are more likely to produce positive effects than negative ones – whereas the reverse holds true for universal voucher programs. This is likely to result from the highly competitive environments that universal programs generate – which usually have a detrimental effect over educational equity and inclusion.

Figure 2 (n=82) Click on the image to enlarge

Charter schools provide another insightful example of the impact exerted by policy design options. As shown by Figure 3, charter-school programs allowing for the participation of for-profit operators are less likely to produce positive effects, and more likely to yield negative results.

Again, these results might be explained by the students' selection and sorting dynamics in which for-profit operators fall more frequently, or by the prioritization of profit at the expense of quality by for-profit operators.

Figure 3 (n=55)

Similar dynamics are identified concerning the regulation of student selection practices. As Figure 4 illustrates, charter school programs allowing student screening are more likely to yield negative results than those programs requiring schools to operate under an open enrolment regime. Again, this pattern is explained by the effect of selective admissions over equity-related dimensions. When given the opportunity, schools are more likely to engage in cream-skimming practices. By excluding socially disadvantaged or less-academically able students, these schools attempt to enhance their reputation or improve their performance.

Figure 4 (n=85)

Overall, research suggests that discussing and assessing the impact of PPPs as an all-encompassing category is highly problematic and risks leading to misleading conclusions. It is necessary to unpack PPPs and analyze them in relation to different policy configurations.

While PPP modalities are generally oriented towards the creation of market dynamics, certain policy design options are more likely to have a magnifying effect on such dynamics and, consequently, trigger further school competition and segmentation.

When this happens, PPP programs become particularly challenging from a social cohesion and an educational equity perspective. Paying attention to the impact of program design is a key step in order to identify negative or unintended effects of PPP programs, as well possible trade-offs between different policy goals such as quality and equity.

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