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Public Private Partnerships in Liberia have failed! The Education Minister must act now to save the Liberian Education system

published 20 December 2019 updated 20 December 2019

By Mary Mulbah and Samuel Y. Johnson 

In this blog responding to the recent release of RCT results on Liberia’s PPP experiment, the President and General Secretary of the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL) reaffirm teachers’ rejection of the Liberian Education Advancement Programme and urge the government to focus on system-strengthening sustainable reforms instead of misguided policy distractions.  

Three years ago, Liberia’s former Minister of Education announced that he wanted to outsource our entire education system to Bridge International Academies (Bridge), a for-profit American company that has now been exposed for providing poor quality education and violating national standards in both Uganda and Kenya. 

NTAL, the National Teachers Association of Liberia, immediately denounced this plan, as did many other national and international actors. Responding to our concerns, the ministry rolled back on its plans and decided instead to go ahead with a pilot public-private partnership project, called Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL). Eight providers were chosen (BRAC, Bridge, More than Me, Movement YMCA, Omega, Rising Academies and Street Child) to take on 93 schools and scale up would occur based on an independent evaluation.

NTAL condemned the pilot, concerned that existing international evidence of the negative effects of public-private partnerships (PPPs) was being ignored in the face of ideological zeal, and that ultimately Liberian students (the pilot included 8.6% of public students) would pay the price for the government’s policy experiment. We were also worried that the pilot would be the tip of the iceberg for further privatisation of public education in Liberia and that the pilot would pave the way for the government’s complete abdication of its constitutional responsibility to provide education (see article 6, chapter 11) and its duty to fulfil every child’s right to education. Nevertheless, we trusted that, being a pilot programme, the government would – as promised – base its subsequent policy decisions on the evidence and rein in its radical privatisation plans if PSL showed poor results. 

Unfortunately, it became clear very quickly that the ministry had little concern for evidence-based policy making. It appeared that contracting independent researchers to conduct a randomised control trial of PSL was just for show, or perhaps an attempt to assuage critics; the government expanded the PSL pilot to 98 additional schools before the results of the evaluation of the pilot’s first year were even available. Absurdly, one of the 8 operators, Stella Maris, had never actually taken control of their assigned schools, yet were allocated more schools when the program expanded. When independent researchers approached the government for permission to conduct important qualitative research (in-depth site research to complement the RCT by unpacking the ‘why’ of the quantitative results), this was not granted.  

Now, three years later, the final results of the RCT are out, and show – as we expected and have repeatedly declared since the program’s inception – that outsourcing is by no means a solution to address the challenges faced by Liberia’s education system. The research found that, though there were some small learning gains after the first year of the programme, these plateaued in the subsequent years. Many children leaving outsourced primary schools were still unable to read well enough to understand a simple passage, despite some operators firing underperforming teachers and hiring new ones, and Bridge and More than Me spending over three times the government target for per-pupil spending. 

Meanwhile, it was found that outsourcing had a negative impact on access – after three years, students in programme schools were less likely to still be in school than students in public schools. Students from outsourced schools were less likely to continue to secondary education and girls in outsourced schools were more likely than those in public schools to drop out due to pregnancy. The impact on access was particularly bad for schools outsourced to Bridge, who, shockingly, when they took over their schools kicked out many students who were already enrolled and shut down three secondary schools (amazingly, Bridge is now trying to discredit the researchers for tracking these expelled students as part of their sample). Finally, the results showed that outsourcing had little impact on child safety – corporal punishment was reduced a little in outsourced schools but remained high, and self-reported sexual-abuse was as high in outsourced schools as in public schools. Investigative journalism even found that one operator, More than Me, systematically tried to cover up sexual abuse from one of its co-founders, showing the danger of privately run schools being largely unaccountable. 

In short, the results expose PSL (now rebranded as the Liberian Education Advancement Program [LEAP]) as a fiasco, and funders of the program and the operators – including the World Bank and national aid agencies as well as corporate sponsors - should take note. However, as revealing as the results are regarding the failure of the program are, what they really show is that outsourcing is a distraction from the urgent work that needs to be done to improve the education system. 

Education quality is poor in schools across Liberia. About 25% of students in fifth grade cannot read any words. This is a sad but unsurprising outcome of an education system that has suffered from years of underfunding and poor management, exacerbated by multiple other challenges including the post-conflict context and Ebola. Many of our members, qualified teachers at public schools across the country, have not been paid for months. Some teachers are not even on the payroll (the RCT researchers found this to be the case for 36% of teachers in 2016). It’s abundantly clear that spending under $50 per student is woefully insufficient to provide quality education. Yet our government has still not sufficiently prioritised education spending – the latest data shows that we are still allocating far below the international financing targets of 6% of GDP and 20% of government expenditure to education. We urgently need increased investment in education, quality teacher training, robust education management systems, and better accountability mechanisms.

SDG 4 will not be achieved in Liberia by outsourcing schools to private providers. It will be achieved by investing in sustainable system change and system wide improvements in public education. For this reason, we urge the Liberian government to immediately cease the misinformed PPP initiative and focus on strengthening the education system sustainably. 

NTAL, supported by student and parent organisations, CSOs at home and abroad, and our brothers and sisters in education trade unions around the world, is fully committed to continue to fight for free, quality public education in Liberia. We recently created a campaign platform, the Consortium of Education Defenders of Liberia (COEDEL) and have ramped up our advocacy efforts to stop the outsourcing of our public schools. At our October rally, hundreds of teachers gathered to call for the outsourcing to stop. A petition was presented to the minister of education, who promised us that from now on NTAL would be involved in any discussions related to the issue. We hope that this promise is kept but we will not stop campaigning until our public schools are returned to us and every Liberian child has their right to quality education fulfilled. 

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.