What’s bad for America’s children deemed good for others: Riposte to Nick Kristoff

Liberian school children. Image via UN Photo Flickr.

Writing in The New York Times about the growth of privately run for-profit schools in Liberia, the paper’s columnist Nicholas Kristof praises the turnover of a significant number of public schools in Liberia to Bridge International Academies, a US-based for-profit education company. That same company that has been ordered to close its schools in Uganda and Kenya for its neglect and disregard of national educational standards.

Kristof claims that those who oppose the commercialization of education in Liberia and elsewhere, including Education International, are driven by ideological motives rather than the interests of children. This is incorrect. Around the world, the teaching profession is the most outspoken advocate of children’s right to quality schooling. That right is to be realized by governments. And where public authorities fail to make their public schools work, they need to be held accountable and pressured to do better rather than permitted to wheel in the marketeers to do the job they were elected to do in the first place.

Kristof believes that Americans are grown up enough to handle their own education system, but without a shred of evidence he offers that the “solution” for Liberia is to turn their schools over to a foreign, US based corporation.

Liberia experienced two civil wars, the first from 1989 to 1997 and the second from 1999 to 2003, followed by a transition to democracy and elections in 2005. The destruction of those wars left the population vulnerable to the Ebola virus in 2014 and 2015. That catastrophe inflicted serious damage on the economy and education.

Education is a public service that enables people to listen, sows the seeds of tolerance, heals wounds and develops critical thinking. It is a building process that contributes to development, good governance and decent societies.

On the other hand, education that limits such progress, restricts discussion, and focuses exclusively on a few narrow skills fails children and society. Bringing in private education operators, particularly in relative obscurity, is not an example of good governance. Handing over Liberia’s primary and pre-primary education system to a foreign for-profit company like Bridge is as bad for Liberian education as it is for the country’s democracy.

It is of deep concern that deals between the government of Liberia and the education privateers have been so opaque and that independent research and evaluation have been dismissed. Despite the promise that any significant expansion of the privatization project would depend on some rigorous evaluation six months into the trial, the Ministry of Education decided to double the number of schools in the project’s second year.

This earned the Minister a public rebuke from the government appointed evaluation team and the criticism  of the international academic community. Suppressing independent research and evaluation and precipitous action are linked. Both have the effect of limiting governance by chilling or blocking informed, public discussion.

The current situation in Liberia is best summed up by Mary Mulbah, the President of the National Teachers’ Association of Liberia (NTAL), who wrote on Africa is a Country last week:

Ultimately the key question is this: why is our own government so incapable of managing this critical public service that it must give the keys to our children’s future over to foreign companies and charities who often seem to have little to no understanding of our country and culture?

As teachers, we have a profound interest in seeing a well-financed, responsibly managed, modern school system that grants all of our students the best chance to succeed in difficult circumstances. But we believe this is best achieved through robust public investment, better administrative management, and stronger accountability for teachers as well as the ministry officials that supervise them.

Noting “successive studies,” Kristof himself acknowledges that for-profit schools “hurt children” in the US. Yet, without missing a beat, he proclaims that they are good for Liberian children.

In the US, as in Liberia, support for the privatization of education systems is not based on objective information, evidence or informed debate. It is, rather, driven by ideology; by the dogma that private must be better than public. It is only recently that much of the American public has realized that they have been victims of exaggeration, empty promises and deception.

Liberians should not be guinea pigs in an experiment to transform the noble mission of public education into a market opportunity for foreign capital.

So, a plea to Nicholas Kristoff: let’s not wish upon other people’s children that which we would not accept for our own.

* This text was first submitted to the New York Times as an oped response to Kristof. The newspaper informed Education International that it does not “run response pieces as op-eds.”

Fred Van Leeuwen

Fred van Leeuwen is general secretary of Education International.

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