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Review: The Beautiful Tree, by James Tooley

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 8, No. 4.

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves, by James Tooley. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009. 268 pp. $19.95 (hardcover).

beautiful-treeThe Beautiful Tree is the inspiring story of James Tooley’s quest to discover “how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves.” Tooley begins his book by describing his serendipitous discovery of low-cost private schools for the poor in Hyderabad, India. While on an assignment for the World Bank to research the contribution of high-end private schools to the education of middle- and upper-income Indians, Tooley discovered that dozens of low-cost, for-profit private schools serve the poor in the slums of Hyderabad, and that parents choose to send their children to these private schools despite the fact that government schools are available for “free.”

When Tooley returned to the World Bank and told his colleagues of his amazing find, their responses were typical of those he would receive during the rest of his investigation. Many refused to believe that low-budget private schools existed. The few who acknowledged their existence attempted to dissuade Tooley from giving them much attention, because, in their view, these schools were “ripping off the poor” and were “run by unscrupulous business people who didn’t care a fig for anything other than profits” (p. 21). Tooley responded to such skepticism and cynicism by redoubling his efforts to learn about such schools. Inspired by what he found in Hyderabad, Tooley searched for similar schools in the slums of Nigeria, Ghana, and China.

Tooley writes that many education officials he encountered were completely unaware of the low-cost private schools in their nations, and others went to great lengths to deny their existence. For example, in Nigeria, Tooley met Dennis Okoro, recently retired chief inspector of schools for the Nigerian federal government. Initially, Okoro professed ignorance that low-cost private schools existed; then he denied the possibility of their existence. When Tooley took Okoro into the slums of Makoko and showed him several schools, Okoro concluded that what he saw could not be private schools serving the poor, because “[t]he poor by definition cannot afford to pay fees for private schools. So if this was a fee-charging private school, it couldn’t be for the poor” (p. 50).

Similarly, Tooley describes officials at a regional education bureau in China who “argued” that, because the Chinese government’s official position is that government provides basic education to all children, rich and poor, “what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility” (p. 97). This exchange came only moments after Tooley explained that he had already personally visited five such schools.

The Beautiful Tree documents how Tooley ignored the advice of “development experts” (such as those at the World Bank) and pushed past the resistance and ignorance of education officials to build a team to help him investigate the phenomenon of low-cost private schools serving the poor. He recounts interviews with poor parents in which they discussed (among other things) why they chose to pay for private schools. He highlights the challenges that the schools’ owners face, which include convincing banks to lend them money and bribing corrupt government officials in order to remain in existence. . . .

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