For-Profit Private Schooling for the Poor: Bridging the Gap?

The gap between the rhetoric of the Education for All (EFA) goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for education, on the one hand, and the reality of access to and quality of basic education in developing countries, on the other hand, is huge.  Over 100 million school-age children are not in school, and over 200 million children who are in school are not learning basic skills.  It is therefore understandable that people, from parents to policy makers are desperately searching for alternatives.

President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, in a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the need to end extreme poverty, pointed out the importance of investment in education.  However, his only example was that of the supposed success of one private, for-profit company.  Kim said:

“We know that using new technology can help transform educational outcomes. For example, Bridge International Academies uses software and tablets in schools that teach over 100,000 students in Kenya and Uganda. After about two years, students’ average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers. The cost per student at Bridge Academies is just $6 dollars a month.”

Kim’s statement incensed so many people in the international education community that over 100 community, regional, national, and global civil society organizations, representing millions of people, composed and released their own statement condemning it.  Kim made three points about Bridge.  It turns out that each one is either misleading or flat-out wrong.

His first point, that Bridge “uses software and tablets in schools” is misleading.  Most readers would assume that the students in Bridge had access to computers.  Not at all.  Each teacher is given a tablet, not to be used by students, but to deliver and control a totally scripted curriculum to barely trained, unqualified, poorly paid teachers.  Teachers everywhere in the approximately 400 schools Bridge has in Kenya and Uganda are expected to all read aloud to the students, word-for-word, the content delivered on the tablet at the same time in each school every day.  This teacher-turned-robot barely deserves to be called education and would not be tolerated in most schools in most developed countries.  In fact, the name Bridge applies to itself, “school-in-a-box,” is perhaps appropriate.

Kim’s second point, that Bridge student test scores “have risen high above their public school peers” turns out be the results of a study financed by the company itself!  This is clearly not a trustworthy source, and Kim has been severely criticized for using it as evidence of anything.  In-house studies by tobacco companies continue to show that smoking in not harmful, and few respectable researchers would cite any company studies as valid evidence of the efficacy of their product.  Indeed, the little information available about Bridge’s study indicates it was poorly designed and badly analyzed.  In response to these criticisms, Kim now says that the World Bank will do a thorough, independent evaluation of Bridge.  But this is much too late.  Kim is praising the system before studying it and the World Bank has already committed to invest $10 million dollars of money, derived from taxing citizens around the globe, in an untested and poorly conceived program.

Kim’s third point, that Bridge costs “just $6 dollars a month” is not only wrong but shows how the World Bank is completely out of touch with developing country reality.  First, fees vary by grade, and $6 is the lowest. Adding in fees Bridge charges for exams, uniforms, and other expenses, in reality, costs per child range from $9 to $13 – 50% to two times higher than Kim said.  And this does not include the costs of food, for which Bridge charges an additional $7 per month per child. 

Estimates are that for many of the poor in Kenya and Uganda such costs are out of reach, requiring more than a quarter of their income to just send one child to school.  Those who do send children to Bridge are forced to make invidious choices, often only able to afford, barely, to send one child, usually a boy, and to leave their other children out.  It has been estimated that poor people in developing countries need to spend up to 80% of their income on food.  Sending a child to Bridge means taking money away from necessary expenses on food, water, and health care.

Bridge was founded in 2007 to aggressively pursue a new market, what some have called the “bottom billions.”  "We believe that we can be educating at least 10 million pupils around the world that come from families who live on less than $2 a day," says Bridge co-founder Jay Kimmelman.  And Bridge has attracted over $100 million from international investors who also believe in the bottom billions market, including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerman (Facebook founder), Pierre Omidyar (eBay founder), Pearson, the U.K. government, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. 

Bridge’s principal response to its critics might be that they have over 100,000 students enrolled in their schools.  This is the economist argument that “people vote with their feet.”  As I have argued elsewhere, this is understandable as 30+ years of neoliberal policies have often left public schools over-crowded, with poorly trained teachers, few learning materials, dilapidated facilities, and not close by.  It is no wonder that some parents opt out.  However, while it is understandable for disadvantaged individuals to sometimes send their children to private schools, it is poor public policy to promote this, as many recent criticisms make clear.  Education privatisation increases inequality, provides no learning gains, and de-professionalises teachers.  Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, charging fees for basic education violates the right of children to free basic education, enshrined in numerous international agreements.  While in practice there are often fees for public education, they are being challenged and eliminated.  Privatisation is supposed to help meet the growing education gap resulting from years of attack on the public sector, but all it does is replace an attempt to develop good public policy with the vagaries of charity or the single-mindedness of profit-making.  Too often everything is about the bottom line vs. interests of children.

The World Bank has been the most influential global marketeer in pushing for the privatisation of education for over three decades, based on ideology not evidence, as I and colleagues detail in a recent book.  We will not bridge the gap between the soaring rhetoric of EFA, the MDGs, and their successors and the too-dismal reality of our education efforts through privatisation.  President Kim should be embarrassed by and recant his recent statement, and the World Bank should repudiate its ideological zeal with selling privatisation. 


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Steve Klees

Steven J. Klees (sklees@umd.edu) is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. He did his Ph.D. at Stanford University and has taught at Cornell University, Stanford University, Florida State University, and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil.
Prof. Klees' work examines the political economy of education and development with specific research interests in globalization, neoliberalism, and education; the role of aid agencies; education, human rights, and social justice; the education of disadvantaged populations; the role of class, gender, and race in reproducing and challenging educational and social inequality; and alternative approaches to education and development.

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