While this blog covers issues of justice in American public education and almost never examines international issues, today is an exception. Over the weekend, a friend with ties to education in Liberia sent me a shocking article from Main & Guardian Africa about Liberia’s plans to outsource its entire education system to a private, for-profit American firm.
Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it. Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage. The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company. Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….” Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”
A little research showed me that I should already have known about efforts to privatize education in Africa. Late last summer in her blog, Diane Ravitch reported that the World Bank has been advocating the privatization of education in Uganda and Kenya. At that time, Ravitch referenced an article from Mint Press News reporter Billy Briggs about growing alarm over the World Bank’s education priorities: “Private, for-profit schools in Africa funded by the World Bank and U.S. venture capitalists have been criticized by more than 100 organizations who’ve signed a petition opposing the controversial education venture… The schools project is called Bridge International Academies and 100,000 pupils have enrolled in 412 schools across the two nations (Kenya and Uganda). BIA is supported by the World Bank, which has given $10 million to the project, and a number of investors, including U.S. venture capitalists NEA (New Enterprise Associates) and Learn Capital. Other notable investors include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar and Pearson, a multinational publishing company.” Briggs explains that the World Bank’s Jim Kim praised Bridge International Academies for raising average test scores in reading and math but adds that the data supporting such a conclusion came from “a study conducted by BIA (Bridge International Academies) itself.”
Briggs reported last summer that the cost for attending a Bridge International Academies school would represent more than two-thirds of the monthly income of a family in Kenya or Uganda. Christine Mungai’s report last week from Liberia indicates that the Liberian government will cover the fees without cost to each family.
Even if Liberia’s government covers the cost, one wonders about the flow of capital out of an economy in need of internal growth. In a March 22, 2016 press release from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Kishore Sing, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, declared: “It is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.” He advocates investing in building Liberia’s own educational capacity, calling on Liberia “to approach the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for technical assistance and capacity building, instead of entering into such partnerships with for-profit providers in education….” “Before any partnership is entered into, the Government of Liberia must first put into place legislation and policies on public private partnerships in education, which among other things, protect every child’s right to education.”
One must question the wisdom of Liberia’s reliance on an a single American for-profit company to shape and provide education, a plan that will slow Liberia’s strengthening its own educational infrastructure and apparently halt the nation’s development of a well-trained and credentialed teaching profession. Mungai explains: “Bridge’s model is ‘school in a box’—a highly structured, technology-driven model that relies on teachers reading standardized lessons from hand-held tablet computers. Bridge hires education experts to script the lessons, but the teacher’s role is to deliver that content to the class. This allows Bridge to hold down costs because it can hire teachers who don’t have college degrees—a teacher is only required to go through a five-week training programme on how to read and deliver the script… Bridge depends on large class sizes. An ideal class size is 40 to 50 pupils, but the classes can get upward of 70 students.” Mungai adds: “But the back-end—the technology running it all—is sophisticated indeed, relying on Big Data, algorithms, and automation of most school administrative tasks.”
Liberia, reports Mungai, may be ripe for such experimentation after a 14-year civil war and devastation by the Ebola epidemic. She describes growing concern, however, in the international educational community. She quotes the recent statement of the United Nations’ Kishore Singh, calling Liberia’s deal with Bridge International Academies “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violate(ing) Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.” She quotes Singh defining the provision of education as a core function of the state: “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”
One must also examine the motivation of some of the so-called investors described as backing the work of Bridge International Academies, for example Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Are these tech-philanthropists supporting such an international education venture as part of their philanthropic aid work or is the purpose to expand the worldwide market for the kind of education technology that has created their personal fortunes? One of the other primary investors listed, Pearson, the world’s biggest education publisher and developer of standardizied testing, has a clear interest in enlarging its markets worldwide.