Since 2009, public education has been both free and required for all children between the ages of six and 14. Yet many families in Mumbai slums, where they lack even toilets and basic sanitation, save up their meager earnings to pay for private school education for their kids.

A recent Economist article states that between a quarter and a third of school children in India attend private schools. In India’s cities, experts estimate as many as 85 percent of children attend private schools. According to another report, 73 percent of families in Hyderabad’s slum areas send their children to private schools.

Additionally, private school enrollment has been rising in most of the country, even as public education was legally required to become free and more accessible. Much of the growth is coming from low-cost private schools that cater to poor families and charge tuition as low as $1 per month.

So if the government is providing free education for all children, why are so many poor parents spending their limited income on schooling?

These parents realize something that governments are hesitant to admit: Their children don’t actually learn much in the public schools. This problem is not unique to India; many developing countries are experiencing a rise in private schooling, and The Heritage Foundation discusses at length the benefits of access to private schools in America. The poor parents in developing countries who are exercising their ability to choose a higher quality education option, and doing so without any financial assistance from the government, deserve some attention from development officials.

Private schooling is especially relevant given the Millennium Development Goal that by 2015 all children “will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” Because of this goal, significant development money has been poured into education efforts in recent years. It’s good that education is a development priority—there are few better ways to invest in a country’s future than to educate its children. However, dumping foreign aid dollars into public education systems that don’t work will not improve the situation.

USAID and the development community need to pay more heed to private schools. Investment in the private education sector through small loans and recognition of private schools as small and medium enterprises could have much greater effect than aid handouts to governments.

Additionally, improved rating systems, such as the one Gray Matters Capital is developing, could help ensure that poor parents are sending their children to quality private schools. These efforts would go a long way to ensuring that education outcomes, not just enrollment numbers, improve in developing countries.

Michelle Kaffenberger is a research manager at InterMedia, a global research consultancy.