SEATTLE — Controversial plans to outsource education in Liberia were introduced at the beginning of this year. All primary and pre-primary schools will be run by the United States-incorporated Bridge International Academies under a new name, New Globe School Inc.
According to the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the pilot program will start in September with Bridge taking over 50 of the country’s 5,000 primary schools. The Liberian government will pay $65 million over the course of five years, with an additional $135 million coming from private donors. Liberian teachers will remain in the classrooms when the pilot program launches this September, but their performance will be evaluated according to the Bridge model, BBC News reported.
Many are criticizing the plan to outsource education in Liberia, calling it a violation of the government’s responsibility to the public and a dangerous relinquishment of control to a private, foreign entity. Others believe in the potential of the plan to provide the reform and structure that Liberia’s school system so desperately needs.
Liberia’s failing education system received global attention in 2013 when every one of the 25,000 graduating high school students failed the entrance examination for the University of Liberia, one of two state-run universities. The Liberian government says only about 20 percent of the 1.5 million Liberian children enrolled actually completed high school. Liberia’s education minister George Werner has had the task of finding a solution to this large and complex problem.
The instability of the system is, like other Liberian institutions, rooted deeply in the country’s history of civil war that ended, after decades, in 2003. Its education system faced more turmoil just recently, shutting down for six months last year due to Ebola, and then, just five months later, shutting down due to a lack of resources. Classrooms are extremely crowded and noisy, and teachers struggle with low salaries and strain.
The National Teachers’ Association of Liberia issued a response to the partnership plans in late February shortly after the announcement. Expressing its opposition to privatization of the nation’s education system, it urged the Liberian government to “commit to a national consultative process across the country so that every citizen can contribute towards the development and implementation of sound policy aimed at improving education opportunity and outcomes for all children.”
In a letter released in early March, Education Minister Werner argued that to outsource education in Liberia is part of a public-private partnership plan, not privatization. The Liberian government, he said, could not do its job alone.
Shortly after Werner’s statement, Kishore Singh, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to education, released his own criticizing relinquishing control over public education to a private company. He stated that the Liberian government should meet its obligations to educate every child by increasing its spending on public educational services rather than paying a private company to do so. The human rights expert also emphasized the need for the Government of Liberia to enact regulatory legislation in public and private partnerships in education.
The International Union Confederation of Africa also voiced its opposition to the policy, urging a halt to the measure in a March 21st letter to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Werner responded to Singh’s criticisms, calling them misguided and originating from consulting with only teacher’s unions, further emphasizing the need for drastic action.
Bridge International Academies released a statement in April saying the people of Liberia deserve better than the status quo. It pointed to the success of the Bridge model in Kenya, in which it cited that students had a 40 percent higher chance of passing national exit exams in 2015. The Bridge’s “Academy-in-a-Box” model delivers materials to teachers on a mobile electronic device, which monitors classroom progress, and is also intended to keep costs low and quality standardized with automation and algorithms.
According to AllAfrica, governments in Kenya and Uganda have criticized the highly structured Bridge method, pointing to how it favors teachers who rely solely on the phone or tablet notes and thus disqualifies teachers who interact with students more. The model also allows Bridge to spend less on hiring teachers with a college degree instead of relying on teachers who undergo a five-week training program that teaches them the Bridge script.
Other Kenyans and Ugandans have released statements opposing Bridge, showing that for poorer households with multiple children, the $6 tuition fees are proportionately too high to family income–higher if meals and other monthly costs are taken into account. However, as Bridge responded, funding in Liberia will come not from parents but from external donors.
Werner has more recently pointed out that the pilot program can be discontinued if the government chooses to do so, saying, “Let’s try this; it’s a pilot. If it works which I believe it will, fine. The government can kill if it chooses to.” He also emphasizes that there was previously no accountability system in place to ensure Liberian teachers did their job. In light of outsourcing education in Liberia, Bridge will prove an intriguing experiment for a very big problem.
– Esmie Tseng