By Samuel Johnson, Secretary General of the National Teachers Association of Liberia
His Excellency Honorable Education Minister George Werner in his “Partnership Schools forLiberia: Building a Better Future for our Children” attempts to make the case that outsourcing the education system of Liberia to private actors will produce better outcomes for especially the poorest children. Liberia’s plan is to privatise all primary and pre-primary schools over the next five years.
It is a deeply unsettling policy that Minister Werner proposes. Outsourcing education would have consequences for future generations of children, parents, educators and society as a whole. Therefore, it is imperative and a matter of public accountability to be mindful of the potential effects of such a policy and examine the evidence from elsewhere.
Minister Werner asserts that the new policy, to be launched in September this year, aims to bring lessons to Liberia from South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK. Unfortunately, Minister Werner has got it wrong. It is unclear what Liberia could be learning from those lessons, except how not to design a policy with the objective of providing quality education for all students.
The recent critique from Kishore Singh, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, is completely justified. Abandoning one of the core functions of the state to the commercial benefit of a private company violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations, including international obligations under the right to education and the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, however, everyone is not entitled to his or her own facts. The facts are that there is no evidence whatsoever from anywhere in the world to support the claim that outsourcing education would be in the interests of our children. Indeed the poorest children would be worse off.
Minister Werner writes that the first inspiration for the policy came from New Orleans, in Louisiana, US, and the non-government charter school system installed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In particular, the Minister argues that the poorest children have benefited most. However, the facts about the New Orleans experiment are quite clear. It failed.
Research by the renowned Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that
Under the charter model, the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified. Schools sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top tiers and the least advantaged at the bottom tiers. This takeover of the system without public dialogue or consent, combined with the resulting high levels of stratification currently in place, illustrate that turning a school system over to non-governmental or private actors has not, in the case of New Orleans, helped students.
Furthermore, the experience from Sweden, one of the global reference countries for private sector involvement, also offers several lessons for the Liberian government about what not to do.
As part of a decentralisation overhaul of the education system, school provision in privately run for-profit “free schools” was introduced in 1992. In recent years, the effects of that policy have become clear with increased educational inequality, variation of academic performance, social and cultural segregation. It took several scandals, including the collapse of a prominent provider, related to the short-term time horizon of private education suppliers, (many of which are owned by private equity firms), and a slide in PISA results, before Swedish government realized that it had no choice but to reverse its course and abolish the profit motive.
So, why is it that the purveyors of these types of governance reforms advocate a losing formula?
Kishore Singh, the UN Special Rapporteur points out that it is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free education to every child, but the government can find huge sums of money to subcontract private actors to do so on its behalf. Minister Werner concludes his argument for outsourcing education by stating that “To not act would be an injustice.”
The truth is that Liberia faces vast challenges in provision of quality education for all. However, to put into action a programme of outsourcing of education in Liberia is likely to prove an act of injustice that will haunt the country for decades. Andrea Gabor of the New York Times reviewed all the research and evaluations of the schools around Katrina and concluded that “For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch.”
Liberia needs to strengthen their education system, build capacity and invest in the professional capital of the people who will lead Liberia into a better, wiser and more prosperous future. Now, that’s a fact I think we all can agree with.
We call upon the Government of Liberia to suspend any further action and commit to a national consultative process so that every citizen can contribute towards the development and implementation of sound policy aimed at improving educational opportunity and outcomes for all children.