I am fascinated by the prospect of new technologies and innovative private-public partnerships that disrupt the status quo in education in Latin America. In the past, governments struggled to find resources for education and their impoverished citizens were unable to invest in their future.  Education spending – as a percentage of GDP – was very low across the region for decades.

Today, governments are directing greater resources to education, particularly to primary education, thanks to their rising incomes. The private sector is pouring in more capital as well, particularly in higher education, responding to a more open and competitive environment. This is happening while a healthy vulnerable middle class, eager for progress, rises up from poverty.

However, progress is slow and educational resources and spending are still far below the necessary levels. Funds in the region are invested inadequately and are not being funneled into projects to improve the quality of education. For example, in the Andean regions of Peru, regional governments receive direct transfers from taxes collected on local oil and mining operations. Some of these regions are sitting on huge piles of cash, but very little of the surplus is invested adequately. Imagine what could be achieved if this surplus was directed into education?

Regional governments, however, are trying to break the status quo and have come up with voucher systems, which I believe could have a significant impact. Voucher systems rely on the investment of private partners to provide education to young graduates from the poorest rural areas.

Currently, I am involved in such a voucher programme in Peru – named Beca 18 – which provides vocational careers to high school graduates selected from remote and volatile parts of Peru. But the current potential is limited by inefficiency as students must be identified, evaluated and picked in their remote home towns, and then the selected candidates must move to urban locations or even to the capital on the coast.

I can only imagine how far initiatives like Beca 18 could extend if they were paired with scalable processes and the most advanced learning technologies. Candidates from the most remote areas could be educated in their own communities and could achieve the same levels of proficiency as middle class urban students.

The resources and the political willingness are available, but for there to be a real escalation of growth, public actors must redesign their systems to measure the quality provided by private operators. And the latter must deploy the most advanced processes and technologies to lower costs and standardize the learning experience.

By extending access to a quality-based education, these public-private efforts would strengthen the safety net, providing the emerging middle class with a strong stabilizing factor, and the poorest and most vulnerable with an opportunity for social mobility.

Author: Martin Aspillaga is the Managing Director of Salkantay Partners.  He was named one of 199 Young Global Leaders, Class of 2013, by the World Economic Forum.

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