Dispatch

Liberia’s Education Fire Sale

Everyone knew the country's public school system was a mess — but nobody thought the government would try to fold up shop.

USA first lady Michelle Obama (L) looks on as she visits a woman education program in Monrovia on June 27, 2016.
US First Lady Michelle Obama told girls in Liberia on Monday to fight to stay in school, as she visited the west African country where the vast majority drops out due to financial pressures. / AFP / ZOOM DOSSO        (Photo credit should read ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images)
USA first lady Michelle Obama (L) looks on as she visits a woman education program in Monrovia on June 27, 2016. US First Lady Michelle Obama told girls in Liberia on Monday to fight to stay in school, as she visited the west African country where the vast majority drops out due to financial pressures. / AFP / ZOOM DOSSO (Photo credit should read ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images)

MONROVIA, Liberia – When first lady Michelle Obama arrived in Liberia this week with daughters Sasha and Malia, it was to highlight the need to expand access to girls’ education around the world. “I’m here to shine a big bright light on you,” she told students at a leadership academy for girls in the town of Kakata, about 40 miles northeast of Monrovia, the capital, where she urged the young women to fight to stay in school.

The first lady couldn’t have picked a more sadly appropriate destination for her message than Liberia. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, famously described the country’s education system as “a mess.” And that was before the deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014 that shut down schools for a full academic year and forced many female students to abandon their studies to become breadwinners. Today, the Ministry of Education estimates that 60 percent of primary school-age children aren’t enrolled in classes and as many as 5,000 teachers on the government payroll are “ghosts” — meaning that although they don’t show up for work, somebody is pocketing their paychecks at a cost of 15 percent of the country’s annual education budget.

But if the extent of the crisis is hard to dispute, the country’s plan to fix it has proven a lot more controversial. Earlier this year, the government announced a plan to begin a phased public-private partnership in education that could eventually see nearly all the country’s primary schools subcontracted to foreign for-profit companies. Supporters say it’s an exciting break from a failing status quo that harnesses technology and research to improve childhood learning outcomes. Detractors accuse the government of abdicating one of its most fundamental responsibilities.

The hybrid privatization plan, which has been described as one of the most expansive and ambitious anywhere in the world, calls for 3 percent of primary schools to be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa. As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators. If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017. It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government.

“After Ebola, we can’t go back to what was, because it wasn’t good enough. We have to think about something new,” said George Werner, Liberia’s education minister, who took office last year.

The driving force behind the new plan, Werner stumbled upon the idea of a public-private partnership somewhat haphazardly. He was at a meeting in the United States last year when he was introduced to Shannon May, a co-founder of Bridge. They got to talking, and a private philanthropist who supports Bridge offered to fly Werner to Kenya to observe Bridge’s schools there. He said he was impressed with what he saw, and after discussing his findings with Sirleaf, a decision was made to invite Bridge to Liberia to gradually assume management responsibilities for its primary schools.

The backlash to the plan was swift. Liberian civil society organizations were irate, claiming the government had broken public procurement laws by making a unilateral decision to hire Bridge as the sole operator of the schools. The National Teachers Association of Liberia, the country’s largest teachers union, has threatened a nationwide strike and unions from across the world have sent Werner letters denouncing the plan.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Samuel Johnson, the secretary-general of the National Teachers Association of Liberia. “Because of these people’s need for self-aggrandizement they’re creating problems for the next government.” (Sirleaf is not expected to stay in power after Liberia holds elections next year.)

Faced with mounting opposition, the government scrambled to invite a number of other companies to participate in order to avoid the perception that they were handing the entire school system over to Bridge. But it pushed forward with the pilot program. Both Werner and May say the criticism was based on a misunderstanding of the plan. Contrary to the immediate, full-scale privatization described by some critics, the teachers in Bridge’s schools will remain on the government payroll, at least in the initial pilot phase. Although the company will manage the schools, the Ministry of Education will oversee them and can pull the plug if it wants.

But the fear isn’t just that private companies are taking over what has traditionally been a government service. It’s that they will provide an inferior product. Critics like Angelo Gavrielatos of Education International, an international umbrella body representing education trade unions, say Bridge’s model of cheap schools and lightly trained instructors who use scripted, tablet-based lesson plans is a radical departure from established norms in the education field, one that is aimed more at reducing costs than providing an appropriate learning environment for children.

“Their business plan is predicated on the employment of unqualified staff delivering a highly scripted standardized system, word-for-word off a tablet,” Gavrielatos said.

May counters that scripted lesson plans can still be engrossing for children: “When you watch Hamlet and it’s a great actor, would you say that’s rote?”

But even Werner admits that a Kenyan education official warned him that Bridge deviated from that country’s national curriculum and employed underqualified staff. “They were urging Bridge to better align with the national government, or else,” he said. “He gave me advice cautioning in terms of having a relationship with them.”

But Bridge says it achieves results. By using the technology on its tablets to monitor teacher performance in real time, it can support those who flounder and hold them accountable when necessary. Studies it commissioned purportedly show marked increases in learning outcomes for students in its schools. Although Bridge is a for-profit company, May describes it as a “mission-driven business” that is primarily concerned with providing kids with better opportunities, not turning a big profit.

“An NGO could never do what we do. They’re almost never able to invest in research and development because all their money is ‘program money,’” said May, referring to funds that must be spent on a clearly defined objective designed by an aid agency or donor. Such funding structures often leave little room for creativity or experimentation.

Still, there are good reasons to be worried about Liberia’s embrace of private education companies like Bridge. First, the one-year pilot program looks rigged to succeed, meaning that the march toward additional privatization seems almost inevitable. Bridge and the other providers will be allowed to retain only the most qualified teachers in the schools they manage while letting go those who don’t meet new standards set by the Ministry of Education or who aren’t willing to work for private management. Their replacements will be drawn from a pool of 1,100 USAID-trained teachers who were due to be assigned to public schools. In other words, the pilot will drain resources away from the already struggling public schools against which its performance is being measured.

Second, as the program scales, the pool of strong teachers will inevitably shrink. It’s unclear whether Bridge and the other providers will then resort to hiring less qualified teachers or begin recruiting staff from outside the education sector altogether — people who would not be unionized like most current public school teachers. If in the future a substantial portion of Liberian instructors are not unionized, it could weaken the collective-bargaining power of the country’s teachers – hence the Liberian teacher union’s threat to strike if the government proceeds with the plan.

Werner and May say the partnership is just an extension of a trend that’s already accelerating in the United States and elsewhere, pointing to charter schools as an inspiration for the model. But even proponents of charter schools recognize that they require effective oversight by the government and parents. Liberia’s recent history of monitoring private companies operating in the country is not good: Sirleaf suspended intercountry adoptions in 2009 in response to disturbing abuses that were ignored by officials for many years. In 2012, Liberian forestry officials colluded with logging companies to forge deeds for vast tracts of valuable forest land. The scandal was brought to light only when Liberian civil society groups exposed the fraud, which resulted in the jailing of the managing director of the country’s forestry agency.

The battle over the future of Liberian education is a microcosm of a much larger international debate about the role of for-profit companies in reforming public services. For Liberians, it’s not a theoretical debate; the lives of their children and character of their society is at stake. But while the path the government has charted remains controversial, few would dispute that the girls Michelle Obama met earlier this week deserve better than what they’re getting now.

Imaged credit: ZOOM ZOUMANA DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images

Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist and human rights researcher who lived in Liberia for two years and travels back frequently. He tweets at @unkyoka

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