Refugees and ‘Native Flight’ from Public to Private Schools

Semih Tumen

Economics Letters, Volume 181 (2019), Pages 154-159


This paper exploits the large-scale arrival of Syrian refugees into Turkey after 2012 to estimate the impact of refugees on public-private school choice of natives in Turkey. As of the 2017/18 academic year, there were an estimated 970,000 school-age refugee children, 63 percent of whom were enrolled in school. An estimated 320,000 refugee children were of primary school age, 96 percent of whom were enrolled in school. Almost all refugee children in education attended public schools in Turkey.

The analysis is based on province-level school enrollment data covering the period between the 2010/11 and 2015/16 academic years. The author bases his empirical strategy on the variation in the intensity of the refugee presence across years and provinces. Moreover, an instrumental variable approach is employed to address the possibility of a non-random sorting of refugees in regions with better economic opportunities.

The author finds that Turkish children switch from public to private primary schools in response to increased Syrian-refugee concentration in their province of residence, although the effect is weaker than estimates in the related literature on the effects of immigrant children enrolled in public schools (for example Betts and Fairlie (2003) find that for every 4 immigrant children enrolled in public secondary schools in the United States, 1 native child switches to private education). A ten percentage-point increase in refugee-to-population ratio at the province level generates, on average, a 0.12 percentage-point increase in private primary school enrollment. This roughly corresponds to one native child switching to private education for every 31.6 refugee children enrolled in public schools. The response is slightly larger among males relative to females.

The author suggests several possible reasons for this weaker estimate of native flight: (a) Syrian refugees in Turkey generally settle together in segregated neighborhoods and their children go to public schools located around those neighborhoods, so natives have an option to switch to other public schools with fewer refugee students, especially in large cities; (b) the cost of private school tuition fees given the relatively fragile labor market conditions in Turkey and high frequency of aggregate shocks; (c) the small number of private schools, mostly located in rich urban neighborhoods; and (d) government efforts to sustain the quality and capacity of public education in response to the refugee in influx, e.g. through language support to refugee children, and the deployment of Syrian teachers to regions with high refugee concentrations to act as voluntary advisers.