Monrovia - George Werner is bracing for the fight of his life. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s anointed Minister of Education’s proposed public-private partnership schools plan aimed at; in his own words, building a better future for Liberia’s children is in the midst of a fiery storm that is now the center of an international debate after a pointed condemnation from Mr. Koshore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education who has labeled the plan unacceptable, unprecedented and violates Liberia’s legal and moral obligations.
“Every child deserves a great education – one that allows her to follow her dreams and achieve her potential,” the minister writes in a FrontPageAfrica Op-Ed submission. But is the proposal which some say, aims to generate profit from a fragile environment the best approach? A growing number of opponents appear to be on the opposite end of the aisle. Key amongst the minister’s critics have been the National Teachers Association of Liberia and civil society organization which have formed a tag team combo to slam the effort they say aims to profit off Liberia’s fragile public education system. In a letter to Werner in January, the organisations expressed concerns with the plans to establish a public-private partnership with Bridge International Academies and with the overall process of privatisation and commercialisation of education services in Liberia. Bridge Over Trouble Waters Citing the Bridge International Academies’ (BIA) record in other countries such as Kenya and Uganda, the teachers and civil society groups, say those examples show that the company hampers the access to free quality education by enforcing the standardization of learning through a system that is not in touch with the local culture, implemented by untrained and underpaid teachers. This, the signatories say, “reinforces rote learning, undermines efforts to make learning relevant or adapted and leaves no space for interaction, as the teachers are not trained to deviate from the script”.
It was supposed to be the Centerpiece of Education Minster George Werner’s reform agenda but Teachers, Civil Society and now International Stakeholders are taking notice and slamming a plan by the minister to team up with Bridge International, the transnational private education provider, to profit off Liberia’s fragile public education system was labeled messy by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “Change is not easy. The public system alone cannot address these challenges singlehandedly. We have some great public schools in Liberia but we have far too few of them. And we already have a diverse set of school operators from government and non-government sectors in our education system.” – Mr. George Werner, Minister of Education “Such arrangements are a blatant violation of Liberia’s international obligations under the right to education, and have no justification under Liberia’s constitution. This also contradicts political commitments made by Liberia and the international community to the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal which is on education and related targets.” - Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education
But Werner disagrees, asserting that the project he aims to launch in September, will bring lessons from elsewhere in the world, including South Africa, Kenya, the US and UK, to Liberia. “We have learned from these models and are adapting them to our own unique context. The project is called Partnership Schools for Liberia. The Ministry of Education will contract operators from within and outside of Liberia to run public primary schools. The schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors. Together, we will bring new ideas, new capacity, new systems and new expertise to a system that is struggling to deliver.” Exploring Learning Outcome In a recent letter, responding to the teachers’ concerns, Werner explained that the partnership is aiming to explore how learning outcomes for children in Early Childhood and Primary Schools can be improved. The pilot schools, according to Werner, will remain free and government-owned, and will be run by private providers according to government standards. “The Ministry and the Government are committed to free, quality education for every Liberian child.” The minister dismissed suggestions that partnership is an attempt to privatize public school and says it is neither threatening the provision of free education. “The pilot will not involve any privatization of education, nor any move towards privatization. As we have affirmed in meetings with stakeholders, including NTAL, the pilot in no way changes the Government’s commitment to free and compulsory basic education. Public-private partnerships differ from privatization, as public schools remain under Government control. Government Primary and Basic Schools will always remain free: Her Excellency President Sirleaf and the entire Government are proud to have set this in law.” The program, according to Werner draws its inspiration from New Orleans, in Louisiana, USA. “After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, New Orleans’ education system lay in tatters. The city government made the bold decision not to rebuild the monopoly of public sector provision. Instead they partnered with non-government operators to create a diverse ecosystem with a range of school operators, known as “charter schools”. And it worked. Despite huge economic and social challenges in New Orleans, charter schools have delivered higher completion rates and better learning outcomes. Importantly, the poorest children in New Orleans have benefited most.” Werner goes on to say that some 15 percent of all schools in the UK are now “academies”. And in January this year, the provincial government of the Western Cape in South Africa launched their own ‘Collaboration Schools’ project, where the government funds non-government operators to manage public schools. The city government of Nairobi, Kenya, is exploring a similar solution. In all these cases schools are not private schools. They are part of the public system.” According to Werner, Partnership Schools overriding mission is to provide every child, regardless of family background or income, access to high-quality education. “All Partnership Schools will be free and non-selective. No tuition fees will be charged. Instead non-government operators will be funded by government and donors, and they will be accountable to government for the results they deliver.” Supporters of the plan point to a 2013 embarrassing turn which saw nearly 25,000 failing entrance examination at the state-owned University of Liberia. Although President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf later intervened to have the university back down and give places to a lucky 1,800, the damage had already been done. More than a decade of civil war left a vacuum that even a decade of post-war democratic leadership if finding hard to fill. Sirleaf herself admitted in 2013 that the education system was "in a mess" and in need of reform. Doubts over whether Sirleaf approved of the Werner plan appears to have been answered in Werner’s Op-Ed as the minster suggests that the plan has the president’s support. “Her Excellency the President and I share the belief that Partnership Schools has great potential to deliver enduring impact on our system. But we both know there are no silver bullets and no panacea in education. So we must proceed with caution. The pilot project will start with up to 120 schools, just three percent of all public schools. And we must generate evidence before we scale further: an independent body will be commissioned to evaluate the outcomes of the pilot program.” But Werner does acknowledge problems within the sector as he makes a case for the partnership progream. “It is a significant success that 1.5 million children are now enrolled in primary school. But 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. This is an injustice, an injustice that needs to be addressed. The futures of our children, communities and nation are at stake. Things must change.” Gaining Profit from Fragile Situation But the UN key expert on Human Rights sees it differently, differing with Werner’s proposal and disagreeing with Liberia’s quest to gain profit from a fragile situation. Singh believes that public schools and their teachers, and the concept of education as a public good, are under attack if the plan is allowed to go into gear, declaring: “Such arrangements are a blatant violation of Liberia’s international obligations under the right to education, and have no justification under Liberia’s constitution,” the Special Rapporteur stated. “This also contradicts political commitments made by Liberia and the international community to the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal which is on education and related targets.” Singh argues 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.” Taking pointed jabs at Werner’s argument that the schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors, Mr. Singh states that it is rather 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. It is an argument that Werner and the Sirleaf administration, critics say could struggle to explain as more international stakeholders weigh in on what is undoubtedly becoming a controversial and polarizing issue for the administration. Singh’s position marks a rare criticism for the Sirleaf administration which has enjoyed overwhelming international support but has struggled against a wave of domestic frailties. As Singh argues the sums paid to private firms could be much better spent on improving the existing system of public education and supporting the educational needs of the poor and marginalized. It is an argument that Werner and the Sirleaf administration could find a difficult balancing act. “We already have a diverse set of school operators from government and non-government sectors in our education system. We must work together and draw on the best of both sectors if we are to achieve the results we want to see. While the government will always remain responsible for ensuring every child’s right to education, we need to work far more collaboratively with others to strengthen our public schooling sector. This must happen fast. We cannot risk failing another generation of children”. With two years remaining on the clock, Mr. Werner’s pitch amid a sea of controversy that has now drawn the ire of a key international stakeholder, is racing against time in a nation running out of patience over a key sector, experts say could hold the key to Liberia’s post-war resurgence.