Wildfire! SDG 4 Red Alert –Rich Profits on Public Education in Liberia
by Jill Christianson, National Education Association
There is a wildfire beginning to rage in public education in Liberia. Without immediate firefighting from many directions, this wildfire could spread elsewhere fast. Unlike other fires that can be dampened and extinguished quickly, a wildfire “differs from other fires by its extensive size, the speed at which it can spread out from its original source, its potential to change direction unexpectedly, and its ability to jump” borders.
The first to spot this explosive fire was the National Teachers’ Association of Liberia; it sounded the alarms. The government of the Republic of Liberia, with leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Minster of Education George Kronnisanyon Werner, has developed the “Partnership Schools for Liberia,” plan for private, for-profit providers to manage all primary schools in the nation by 2020. The primary for-profit provider, Bridge International Academies, has exploded in Kenya with its expansive, low-fee private school agenda. In Liberia, with support from the World Bank and other investors, Bridge International Academies with the UK-based Ark, have the contract for the takeover of public primary schools, with authority to make curriculum decisions, scheduling decisions and labor decisions. All fees will be paid for by the government and donors (i.e. no education charges for students or families) in this scheme. Bridge, Ark, and maybe others, will profit. How quickly will this fast profit wildfire spread?
The National Teachers’ Association of Liberia, with the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education ( COTAE) in Liberia have cited the government for a lack of transparency and minimalist stakeholder consultations in this sweeping move to have public schools operated by private, for-profit entities. Drawing upon the experience in Kenya and in Uganda with low-fee private education partially funded by the World Bank and delivered by Bridge Academies International, COTAE states that:
"Channeling support to international private providers causes the public schools that are currently under funded to practically collapse."
Will the Liberian Ministry of Education be able to effectively control the private profit wild fire in the education sector? Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh notes:
"The corporate sector has a long track record of attempting to prevent government regulation and numerous corporations have sued governments for trying to implement regulations that could harm their profits. Governments must be bold in regulating private operators, focusing on education as a public good."
National Education President Lily Eskelsen García shared with Liberian Minister of Education Werner that stakeholder engagement guidelines are within the new Every Student Succeeds Act in the United States, because
“…our experiences in classroom with private consultants and companies have shown they are not primarily aimed at better outcomes for our children. Private corporations do what is best for themselves and shareholders first and foremost. Schooling without the profit motive puts all resources into meeting the needs of the children.”
An SDG wildfire? Keep in mind that the SDGs – including our hard won Goal 4 on Education – need appropriate financing in order to become a reality. It is the responsibility of our governments to make this happen. Liberia – and who knows which country is next – is relying on private entities to deliver their public responsibilities for a cost.
Is this just a Liberian issue? Have a look at the new Education International Worlds of Education magazine, focused on profiteering off of public education. As guest editor Carol Anne Spreen points out in the Selling Out the Right to Quality Education for All:
"The long-term challenge for ensuring the right to quality public education is when governments outsource education activities and service provisioning to profit-making corporations, given the ability of private actors to assert their influence in policy processes and steer education agendas in ways that may not be in the best interest of students, teachers and societies at large."
We owe it to the world’s children to quickly extinguish this wildfire through collective, concerted effort!
 Definition: wildfire https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildfire
 Singh, Kishore; Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2015 https://documents-dds ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G15/120/82/PDF/G1512082.pdf?OpenElement
Jill Christianson works with the National Education Association in International Relations. It is the transformative power of public education, which is grounded in social justice and equity that drives her work.