Primary Education in Liberia Should not be Privatized

In an unprecedented move, the Liberian government plans to outsource the entire primary education system to a private company, Bridge International Academies (www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com). The deal will obligate the government to pay approximately $65 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to a company driven by profit motive. That equates to over $13 million annually. The government is conceding that she does not know how to spend $13 million dollars annually to educate our children.

A private for-profit US-based education firm cannot provide the education our children need to become competitive global citizens. We must resist government’s plan to outsource the education of Liberia’s children. Absent any national dialogue, a supremely consequential decision has been made about our children’s future. If this plan is consummated, it will represent a phenomenal failure of imagination by our leaders. What is the point in having a government that cannot fulfill its basic duty of educating the next generation?

Front Page Africa reports that under the public-private arrangement, Bridge International  will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017 while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years, “with government exit possible each year dependent on provided performance from September 2017 onwards.”

It appears that Bridge will not be the only foreign commercial interest running primary education in Liberia. The government plans to eventually contract out all primary and early childhood education schools to private providers who meet the required standards over 5 year period.

This decision has largely flown under the radar since Education Minister George Warner first announced government’s inclinations in January. That was the case until last week when the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, criticized the government’s plan as “unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.” The UN official and human rights expert noted that provision of public education of good quality is 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,” said Singh.

The decision to outsource primary education in Liberia is wrong on many levels.

First, it is an abrogation of duty. The government’s decision to vacate her responsibility to educate our children is both morally reprehensible and legally questionable. It is not much for citizens to ask their elected government to fulfill a most basic duty. We do not object to the government seeking outside assistance – in fact, every government since independence has sought external assistance to fulfill this basic duty. What we loathe is this total surrender.

Second, the government is reneging on a commitment to free universal basic education for all of Liberia’s children. Bridge’s model is not free; theirs is a profit motif. They are in it to make money, and they will make money on the backs of poor Liberian children because the government does not care or lacks the competence to perform its constitutional responsibility.

Third, Bridge’s school-in-a-box model will not provide the kind of education our children need to be competitive global citizens. While the use of technology is commendable, the model leaves little room for teacher innovation and spontaneity. Here is a line directly from Bridge’s website: “Our scripted curriculum includes step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.” In this model, teachers are robots, simply regurgitating pre-ordained – rigid – curriculum developed in some far-away office tower in the West.

Given the right support, experienced Liberian educators can develop appropriate curriculum for Liberia’s children. Instead of investing in teachers to grow capabilities, which they have not done over the last ten years, our government is choosing a US$13 million annual capital flight, mortgaging the fate of our students and educators to people who don’t understand our students, problems or culture.

Furthermore, Bridge’s model is not free nor is it cheap, in spite of their propaganda. In Kenya, where Bridge currently operates several schools, families pay $6 per term per child. A father and mother with 4 primary school aged children can expect to pay $24 per term. This will engender undue hardship for a country with 85% unemployment and ranks the top 5th poorest country in the world (2015).

Finally, Bridge’s model will put a lot of Liberian teachers out of work. So far the government is yet to unveil any plans for redundancy or retirement benefits for these teachers who will lose their jobs under this appalling scheme. Some of these teachers have served for many years or decades in some cases.

Since Bridge offers a “scripted curriculum”, there is little need for college-educated teachers. In fact, teachers do not need certification from a teacher’s training institute. Bridge teachers can be certified in five days. It is all about “mastering” the pre-ordained Bridge curriculum.

Before we surrender our children’s education to an unproven for-profit organization, let’s step back and consider all alternatives. At the minimum, let’s encourage a national dialogue and create ample space to hear all relevant stakeholders.

 

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