Home > Uncategorized > Is the Privatization of Poorly Designed and Delivered Public Education in Africa a Harbinger for the US?

Is the Privatization of Poorly Designed and Delivered Public Education in Africa a Harbinger for the US?

Diane Ravitch wrote two posts yesterday that linked to two separate NYTimes columns dealing with the Bridge International Academies, a privatized education service offered in several African nations funded by “social impact investments”.  Peg Peg Tyre describes the primary source of these funds in her NYTimes magazine article, “Can a Tech Start Up Successfully Educate Children in Developing World?”, and it is a who’s who of privatization advocates in the US:

The Bridge concept — low-cost private schools for the world’s poorest children — has galvanized many of the Western investors and Silicon Valley moguls who learn about the project. Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank have all invested in the company; Pearson, the multinational textbook-and-assessment company, has done so through a venture-capital fund. Tilson talked about the company to Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund manager of Pershing Square, which ultimately invested $5.8 million through its foundation. By early 2015, Bridge had secured more than $100 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But, as Tyre notes, African nations face daunting governance challenges. Most of the governments are de facto dictatorships that are led by kleptocrats who use public resources to pay off opponents, reward allies, and maintain the status quo, which has very small and extraordinarily well off and well educated upper class and vast numbers of un-educated peasants who can barely make a living. But technological advances are underway in Africa, advances that require a larger number of educated workers, something the existing governments were unable to provide. Here’s Ms. Tyre’s description of the problems Bridge witnessed in Kenya, which incorporates the demographic, socio-economic, and governance realities of African schools:

The founders decided to build their headquarters in Nairobi, and they opened their first school there in 2009. Long known as the Green City in the Sun, Kenya’s capital had begun to reimagine itself as the tech capital of East Africa; newly formed telecommunications companies were placing cheap mobile phones in the hands of millions of farmers, merchants and low-wage workers, and mobile banking quickly followed. The public-education system, though, was not keeping pace. In 2003, the Kenyan government officially abolished fees for public primary education but afterward found itself unable to construct enough schools for the poor children who tried to enroll. Public schools, which receive money from the government for teachers’ salaries and building maintenance, still charge parents small amounts to cover costs like classroom supplies and firewood. The schools’ quality varies, but in some, reading materials, textbooks and even chalk can be in short supply. All public-school teachers are certified. Teacher absenteeism is widespread. According to a 2007 World Bank report, 30 percent of teachers in one region in Kenya fail to show up on any given school day. Learning levels for children are low: 70 percent of third graders cannot do second-grade work. And while some catch up, many don’t. 

Wealthy Kenyans and foreigners send their children to private schools, which are taught in English and enjoy lavish resources. The working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools, known as informal schools, that take no money from the government but charge fees that are slightly higher than public schools’. Some provide a basic education, but many do not. Sixteen percent of Kenya’s poor school-age children do not attend any school because their parents can’t afford even the smallest school payments. All Kenyan schools are required to teach the precisely prescribed national curriculum, which is taught in Kiswahili and English and mastery of which is measured by an eighth-grade test called the K.C.P.E. Obtaining a high grade on the K.C.P.E., which is seen as a sign of a child’s industriousness, intelligence and moral rectitude, means a student may continue on to high school.

When I read this description of the African status quo, I immediately saw a dystopian scenario for our country’s schools, one that is emerging as I write this. Compare the situation in our country to that described in Kenya, focussing on the highlighted sections:

  • Our telecommunications corporations provide cheap mobile phones in the hands of millions of  farmers, merchants and low-wage workers, and mobile banking  is already in place making it increasingly easy for citizens to roll up large debt while acquiring lots of “things”.
  • Our national and and state governments have not developed a means of providing “enough schools for the poor children”, with infrastructure initiatives stalled at the federal level and state budgets unable to provide funds for renovations or new construction.
  • Our public schools are increasingly underfunded to the point where teachers make out-of-pocket contributions for necessary school supplied and parents in some districts are charged small amounts to cover costs for things like transportation, extra-curricular activities, and textboooks.
  • Disturbingly, in a country that is far and away more affluent that Africa, our schools’ quality varies, and, as noted above, in some reading materials, textbooks and even chalk can be in short supply.
  • Also, based on standardized testing, learning levels for children are low: too large a number of third graders cannot do second-grade work. And while some catch up, many don’t. 
  • Because of the deficiencies that exist in many districts serving children raised in poverty, the working poor often opt to send their children to parochial or local private schools…a trend that is likely to be reinforced by our nascent federal and state policies that promote vouchers.
  • Because an increasing number of children in our nation are homeless, we have an increasing number of poor school-age children who do not attend any school, a number that is likely to increase if parents of immigrants become fearful of deportation.
  • Finally, and most distressingly, because standardized testing is the basis for determining the “quality” of our schools, all Kenyan US schools are required to teach the precisely prescribed de facto national curriculum, which is determined by the limited number of corporations who develop and administer standardized tests.

The difference between the direction our schools are headed and the baseline of poor African nations is chillingly similar, And given the trends in our nation— where petroleum lobbyists are writing energy policy, arms lobbyists are writing military policy, and, alas, privatizers are writing education policy— it appears that our governance is moving closer to the model in developing nations.

Should we allow our public services to decline further, we may find ourselves floundering for solutions to public education in the same way developing nations are. But we can rest assured that should that happen, entrepreneurs will bail us out with “social impact investments”. From my perspective, the best “social impact investment” is a system of progressive taxation that supports a robust safety net that results in an opportunity for any child to learn and develop the skills they need to be a citizen in a democracy.

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