Action Aid, COTAE want controversial program terminated
President George Weah is not only inheriting a broken economy, he is also taking on an unreconciled country, a deplorable healthcare system and a horribly messy education system.
The latter is the linchpin upon which any society can progress—bringing its masses out of poverty and illiteracy and thereby spurring growth and development.
Although the President is yet to officially unveil his education agenda, he has nonetheless pledged to ensure a vibrant education system – both academic and vocational – for Liberians, especially the youth.
In his first State of the Nation Address last Monday, the President disclosed that his administration will focus on a revision of the education system and provide for the reorientation and empowerment of Liberian youth through training of all kinds.
“The improvement of our education system is and shall remain a constant and major priority during my administration,” he declared.
The looming question now is whether the President will advance his education program through the controversial Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) initiated by his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In a bid to improve the availability and quality of schools, the government in March 2016 introduced the PSL—a Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiative. Back then, supporters termed it a bold innovation that would raise standards, while opponents called the PSL a pathway to privatizing the nation’s school system.
Under the PSL, scores of primary schools (initially over 90) were contracted out to eight private education providers — including for-profit companies and NGOs — in an effort “to improve standards in the school system.”
The PPP just entered its second year and has doubled in size, though against what some called a damaging evaluation report from the pilot project.
Views on the program, however, remain polarized—as experimenting with the education system through privatization has provoked fierce opposition from teachers unions and civil society organizations around the world, turning it into a flashpoint in the global debate over education reform.
Bridge International Academies (BIA) is the lead implementer of the program controlling almost half of the schools.
Many skeptics say PSL is not inclusive, appropriate or sustainable, but meant instead to maximize profits of its operators at the expense of poor children.
It is against this background that some opponents of PSL, including the executive director of Action Aid Liberia, Lakshmi Moore, and the coordinator of the Coalition for Transparency in Education (COTAE), Anderson Miamen, are already calling on President Weah to take a critical look at the program if he is to achieve his goal of improving education in the country.
President Weah has repeatedly stated his commitment to pro-poor policies and equality, including free education. Liberia’s Education Law provides free and compulsory primary education. The Agenda for Transformation (2030) and the recently finalized Education Sector Plan (Getting to Best 2017-2021) have commitments to education, with some promising initiatives to address the system.
Madam Moore, in a recent statement, wondered whether Weah’s government will consider these, too, or develop a new agenda for delivering pro-poor policies, especially with regard to the education sector.
She indicated that with the Weah government inheriting an economy with many challenges, it would be untenable for the government to continue to support the PSL or scale up to the remaining 90 percent – even with private philanthropy.
“Gains have been minimal and at the current costs, this means a majority of children across the country will continue to go to poorly funded and under-resourced schools, creating tiered access to education,” she said.
The Action Aid boss noted that this will adversely impact the country’s current socioeconomic gaps, in a country with an already high level of inequality. “It is therefore urgent that the new government commits to the cessation of the PSL program and instead, increase budgetary support to all public schools,” she stated bluntly.
Miamen, in an interview, said President Weah needs to place an immediate moratorium on the PSL program, if he is to start his education reform agenda on a good footing.
“Funds given PSL schools, especially BIA, are grossly disproportional to what government spends on ordinary public schools across the country. Sustainability is a major concern.
“In fact, the CDC was one of the earlier critics of the PSL program when it was first initiated. We are anxiously waiting to see their action, now that they have the authority and mandate to manage and fix the ‘messy’ education sector. Our advocacy and constructive engagement restarts very soon,” the COTAE coordinator said.
Miamen, who is also the Executive Director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), said his and several other stakeholders’ opposition to the PSL is meant for the government to rethink its decision and adopt a more holistic approach that would promote the fulfillment of its reform program.
CENTAL is the local branch of Transparency International (TI).
He noted that BIA and others, “who were selected through bogus procurement prices,” lack transparency in disclosing total financial and other resources received to operate their schools.
“Furthermore, the PSL does not promote holistic reform in the sector, but undermines equity, access and equality, key requirements under Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education,” he added.
BIA had earlier disclosed that it was recruited through a transparent and competitive procurement process in Liberia, although the PSL evaluation report corroborates COTAE, Action Aid and partners’ earlier contention that the company was handpicked by the MOE.
Meanwhile, PSL’s first year came to an end last year, with supporters terming the results from the initial evaluation as ‘impressive statistics’ — BIA and the government of Liberia bragged of achieving higher learning outcomes as compared to others.
BIA said students made learning gains of more than half an extra year of schooling in English, and two thirds of an extra year in math, when compared to government schools.
On average, learning gains were 60 percent higher in partnership schools in the experiment, compared to the government schools being used as a control.
PSL teachers were 20 percent more likely to be in school during a random spot check (from a dreadful baseline figure of just 40 percent in government schools), while students spent roughly twice as long minutes learning each week.
But does this prove the case for the PSL reformers?
Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as that. While others may say that the PSL schools might have done better, it may be argued that they also received more money, Moore noted.
Miamen rebutted results on learning outcomes with a few rhetorical questions, “What learning gains are you talking about? Someone spends over US$1,000 per child and others spend around US$50 and you come here to talk about results or learning gains? ”
Evaluators discovered that government assigned 37 percent more teachers to PSL schools than non PSL schools, including first pick of better-trained new graduates.
In August last year, 174 civil society organizations from 50 countries joined a landmark global call for investors to halt support to BIA. The statement compiled independent concurring evidence from researchers, CSOs, journalists, and public institutions collected in the last two years that document how Bridge Schools do not reach the poorest; largely fail to meet education standards and sometimes operate illegally; lack transparency; and have poor labor conditions.
The executive chairman of the Education Partnerships Group and executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute, David Laws, said little can be learned from the PSL so far. “But the program can only be regarded as fully scalable if government substantially increase its own education spending, or encourages donors to fill the yawning gap,” he said in a BBC article last year.
Chairman Law, who is a former Schools Minister in England, said if this program is to be scaled up across all Liberia’s schools, then a big increase in the supply of trained teachers will be necessary.
“This seems to be too pessimistic. Indeed, it’s interesting that while learning gains differed widely across the eight operators, these gains did not necessarily correlate with the higher spending,” he added.
However, Moore of Action Aid said reduction of wasteful spending is an immediate step towards increasing funding. “Incentives such as fuel and communication cards, and high vehicle and travel costs can be cut,” she said. Increased public financing is critical to begin to address the under resourcing of the public school system, she noted.
A former top MOE official (name withheld) told the Daily Observer yesterday, “I can freely declare the so called PSL interventions as looting by unpatriotic Liberians who have been given the opportunity to lead the education sector.”
The official, who asked not to be named, added, “MOE’s Planning Department was kept out of the entire exercise because we asked the hard questions. The PSL is the reason former Minster Werner undermined this department thus making it nonfunctional in order for him to have his way.”
Many of the opponents of the PSL believe it to be a cash-cow of former President Sirleaf, Werner, and others to siphon funds from government and the donors.
The cash strapped, pro-poor President Weah, meanwhile, has has been left with a headache that could be difficult to ease.