The best hope for Liberian children

Why is Liberia’s Government rushing to sell its public schools to for-profits from the United States?

In Spring 2016, when Liberia’s Minister of Education, George Werner, announced that he was inviting foreign education companies and non-profits to run our public schools, our country came under the international spotlight, both in Western media and for education activists.

The Minister and the supporters of the government’s plan excitedly championed the notion that clever thinking and technology could turn around our troubled school system. However, the broader education community warned that the consequences of turning an impoverished country’s school system into an “experiment” would be grave, and could lead to lasting damage to Liberia’s ability to run its own public services and provide free education.

Quickly, Liberia was turned into a battlefield between those who see for-profit “charter” schools as the solution to the problems that plague public education across the world, and those of us who point to underinvestment and poor management as the true culprits.

At first, Minister Werner wanted to outsource all of our public schools to one company – US-based Bridge International Academies, which has come under sustained criticism in Kenya and Uganda for operating substandard schools and flouting government oversight.

Pushback against this plan – which violated our national anti-corruption laws – resulted in the government inviting other companies and providers to take place in what was described as a pilot, which was to be judged independently at the end of the first year.

In all, 93 schools were taken over by foreign providers, with Bridge remaining the largest beneficiary of the pilot, managing 25 of our schools.

Now, the first year has concluded. But instead of waiting for the results of the Randomized Control Trial presently being conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Global Development, the Liberian government is pressing forward with another expansion.

In fall 2017, we are told, an additional 107 public schools will be incorporated into the pilot. Contrary to assurance by the minister that there would not be any significant scale-up in the absence of evidence, that represents more than doubling the so-called pilot.

As the national representative body of Liberia’s teachers, we don’t agree that student test scores alone should be used to decide whether to dismantle our public education system. But the fact that the Liberian government is planning to expand the pilot before it receives the results of a study it commissioned is a clear sign that it is not interested in thoughtfully weighing the consequences and impact of its radical plans.

In fact, while high-profile delegations of celebrity visitors and expensive symposiums have been used to trumpet the “successful” outsourcing of our schools, the story on the ground is much more concerning, and does not align with the rosy picture being painted by the Liberian government, Bridge, and other providers.

Investigative reporting has shown evidence that parents in some towns where outsourced schools are located are furious that their children were left without access to education due to limits on class sizes in pilot schools, which were hastily implemented without a plan to assist students who were left out.

Parents were also promised that extended school hours would be supported by the implementation of school lunch programs that have failed to materialize, leading to large numbers of dropouts in some schools.

These and other harmful impacts of the pilot are easy to find. One simply needs to go to the towns where the schools are located and speak with parents and teachers. Any objective observer will almost certainly discover that there are serious problems that must be addressed before an expansion is even considered.

But far from being serious about methodically and responsibly measuring the effects of the pilot, our Ministry of Education seems determined to increase its scope.

In recent weeks, our global federation, Education International, was informed by the Ministry that a team of American academic researchers hired to provide a critical analysis of the pilot would not be allowed access to any of the schools or the administrators who supervise them. This begs the question: what do they have to hide?

Simultaneously, senior leaders of our teachers’ union have been fired by the government for speaking out against the pilot, and teachers working for Bridge have been told there would be consequences if they spoke to their union representatives or journalists about their concerns. Our union has come under attack not just by the government, but also by those who see us as an impediment to the effort to bring our school system under outside management and control.

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.

The government’s reluctance to honestly assess the effects of the first year of this radical initiative should give pause to anyone who thinks that it represents the best hope for Liberian children.

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