Liberia’s education system remains one of the harshly criticized sectors under the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led administration. Even the Liberian leader has categorized the sector as “a total mess”.
These criticisms, compounded by troubling realities in the sector, have engendered the need for reform that will put the broken or nonexistent educational system on par with other countries across Africa. In tandem of this needed overhaul, President Johnson-Sirleaf appointed George Kronnisanyon Werner as Minister of Education to lead the effort. The new Education Minister adopted a reform agenda dubbed “Getting to Best”. Minister Werner hit the ground running just nearly a year into his stewardship at the Ministry by initiating a spate of reforms, paramount among which is the Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme that allows for private institutions to manage the primary and early childhood education for a period of five years. “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,” says Werner of the PPP initiative. But the scheme is now colliding with stiff resistance from the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL), the National Education Association in the United States, the Swedish Teachers’ Association, and the Union of Education in Norway, as well as the United Nations Rights Expert, Kishore Singh. In position statement issued on March 4, 2016, the NTAL said the PPP arrangement will undermine ongoing investments to build an effective and sustainable system that would provide improved quality of educational services, especially at level of state-owned learning institutions across the country. “The PPP in education will derail all the gains that have been made and loosen government’s grip on the already dysfunctional educational system. The PPP will also control key decisions like hiring and firing of teachers and education workers as well as the development and production of teaching materials. The partner will also assume key roles and functions of the Ministry of Education including the determination of instructional materials that will accrue huge financial benefits to the partner (Bridge International Academies),” the local teachers’ association said in its statement. Adding to the feud, the President of the U.S. National Education Association (NEA), Lily Ekselsen Garcia, in a letter to Minister Werner, dated March 16, 2016, said her organization which shares very special history and contemporary connections with Liberia’s Educational sector, is concerned that private entities increasingly seek to profit from public education budget and the outcomes of such deals have not yielded any better result for children. The NEA President said she is aware that the Ministry of Education is expected to handover the operations of 2,750 primary schools to the partner- Bridge International Academies by 2020, but cautioned that with such massive initiative, detailed regulations, monitoring and evaluation will be necessary as well as specific checks and balances for factors of corruption. “I understand that US$158 million is the projected cost of this project through 2020, which will be financed by the Liberian government and external donors. Noting that contracts are being made with for-profit service providers, such as Bridge International Academies, what is the profit margin that they will take? Will any of the PPP profits be reinvested in Liberia? I implore you to carefully consider all the possible consequences of this impending transition in which profits will be made from government’s resources,” the NEA President said in her communication. Adding her voice to the chorus, the President of the Swedish Teachers’ Union, Johanna Jaara Astrand, in a letter to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said, “STU reiterates the deep opposition to any moves that would result in the outsourcing and privatization of education in Liberia as expressed by our sister union, the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL).” Also, the Union of Education in Norway, through its President Steffen Handal told President Johnson-Sirleaf that the decision to “outsource education in Liberia” is not welcoming. The organization’s statement was contained in a March 18, 2016 communication sent to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. “It is completely unacceptable for Liberia to outsource its primary education system to a private company, said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh. “This is unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia's legal and moral obligations,” he stressed. In an apparent response to these concerns, Liberia’s Education Minister George Werner said: “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. 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.” He emphasized that despite the fears being expressed regarding the PPP scheme, the schools will remain within the public sector, owned, financed, regulated and quality assured by government, with support from external donors. He indicated that together, government and partners will bring new ideas, new capacity, new systems and new expertise to a system that is struggling to deliver. Minister Werner added that this new initiative has one overriding mission: 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. Her Excellency the President and I share the belief that Partnership Schools have 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,” he said. In a communication to the Secretary of the National Teachers Association, Samuel Y. Johnson, Minister Werner states that the initiative is not privatization, and that it does not threaten the provision of free education. “As we have communicated, to your members, including at the January meeting; the pilot will not involve any privatization of education, or 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,” he added. In a breakdown of the budget for the program, the Government of Liberia is expected to pay more than US$65 million within the five year period. The Center for Transparency and Accountability in Education, COTAE in statement has indicated that giving the program to manage the primary and early childhood education to a for-profit entity presents numerous challenges related to quality, long term sustainability and value for money.