Are we being too quick to judge Liberia’s ‘partnership schools’ pilot?

Liberia has provoked serious outrage from some quarters with its decision to enter into an agreement with private providers to run its primary schools. An official release on Liberia’s Ministry of Education website sets out the problem, saying that

42 percent of primary age children remain out of school. And most of those who are enrolled are simply not receiving the quality of education they deserve and need”.

One must commend George Kronnisanyon Werner, the Minister of Education for focusing his attention on what is really critical – not only are many children out of school, but even the ones that are part of the system are not receiving quality education. Children enrolled in Liberian schools are not learning, and when asked about the state of the education sector, are quite critical.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh is scathing in his criticism of the Liberian government’s decision. He asserted 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,”, and “it is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf,”.

This criticism is worrying on two counts – the unyielding stance on engagement of private providers in schooling systems; and more importantly, the statement seems to limit the definition of the state’s implementation capacity to its availability of financial resources. More funds in the hands of governments (or for that matter, donors and NGOs) do not automatically translate into better outcomes.

This is particularly true of primary education. Over the last decade, governments and donors have poured in enormous sums of money into education systems, into securing higher levels of access for children in poor countries. In the process, globally, we have taken our eye off quality and learning outcomes. Year after year now, globally recognised learning surveys tell us that the vast majority of children might be in school, but they aren’t learning. This is true in Liberia’s case too. The debate over Liberia’s policy decision fits right into the global debate over the role of private providers, and to do justice to the enormous education challenge facing us, the least we should insist on, is a nuanced discussion.

In recent years, low-cost private schools have become an important feature on the policy agenda to promote education for all. These schools are not free, but they are low-cost in comparison to the standard understanding of what ‘private’ schools charge. Even so, the $5 – 7 per month that is charged can be quite a burden on the pockets of poor families. Others have countered this by pointing out that education expenditures make up a significant proportion of what families with children normally spend (ranking just behind food and health). Therefore, private schools are springing up, especially in rural and peri-urban areas of low- and middle-income countries. Parents appear to be voting with their feet and private school enrolment is increasing in absolute numbers and as a percentage of gross enrolment figures in countries such as India, Pakistan, Kenya.

Evidence suggests that private providers have a role to play. They deliver learning outcomes that are as good, or slightly better than in public schools at lower per-capita costs, according to evaluations in India and Kenya. Of course, the absolute levels of learning in both types of schools seem abysmally poor, so there is really very little to choose from there. And the costs are kept low by paying teachers lower, which is yet another hot potato. For one, teacher absenteeism and time on task in public schools is very poor in comparison to private schools. More importantly, there is little evidence to show that having higher paid, or qualified permanent civil service teachers yield results in terms of learning outcomes for children.

Other independent studies have found that management systems that are able to hold teachers to account make a huge difference, and many private providers follow models that are more accountable than public systems.  But this debate is far from over. We often complain about the lack of sufficient evidence-informed policymaking—but it is also true that policymakers do not always have the best evidence possible at a given decision-point, where best means both rigorously collected and analysed as well as relevant to the context. This is where the ‘partnership schools’ experiment will provide Liberia with an excellent opportunity – to generate evidence, and make their own decisions based on clear, transparent decision criteria. The official statement says as much: “an independent body will be commissioned to evaluate the outcomes of the pilot program.

Many critics are up in arms over the fact that Liberia is partnering with Bridge International Academies (BIA), an American firm that has investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Engaging a single provider in such a large experiment is risky. But, at this point, it is not even clear that is the case. Liberia says they will run a competitive procurement process to identify partners, so one would hope that there would be multiple partners in the mix, and an opportunity to test out more than one approach. The eco-system of private providers is a large one. There are the likes of BIA, which are large multinational chains, and then, there are the single-entrepreneur schools, community/NGO schools, church-run schools, etc. One could argue that local private players are better rooted in the communities they work in and therefore, are more responsive and accountable. But these are assumptions that this pilot should help test out.

When Liberia decides to initiate a pilot of up to 120 schools (3% of the all public schools in the country), it is not abdicating its responsibility towards its children. By starting this pilot, the Liberian government is neither off the hook for improving quality of the remaining public schools in the country, nor can it give up its oversight of private schools that would function under its watch. The criticism of Liberia on the lines that it is “outsourcing its entire education system” just isn’t right. As a country in the middle of a post-conflict recovery process, Liberia needed to do something different to revive its education sector. This is a bold gamble, and promises to be an interesting public policy experiment. On this occasion, we must not be too quick to judge Liberia.

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This is also my livemint column

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