Acting on Education Globally and Locally

Every year, Global Action Week for Education reminds us that no matter where we live in the world, people yearn for local, well-resourced public schools that can inspire students’ natural curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn. But in many places, that goal is becoming more and more elusive.

This is Global Action Week, and one of the 2017 goals is for governments to “strengthen public systems and state capacities to ensure that education is free, quality, and equitable for all students. With companies on a mission to expand the reach of for-profit schools, that’s an important call to action.

Just last week, NEA joined the American Federation of Teachers, the Global Campaign for Education, South African Democratic Teachers Union, Public Services International, Education International, and other civil society organizations in protesting the World Bank’s financing of Bridge International Academies, a for-profit network of schools. As I wrote in a letter to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, using children “as social experiments in learning and profit is disgraceful.”

Bridge, which operates schools in Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and India, promises quality education, but what it provides students are: unlicensed teachers instructed in what to say and how to say it; schools that fail to meet even minimal standards for sanitation and safety; and a one-size-fits all curriculum generated in Cambridge, Mass., tweaked slightly to give a local flavor, then placed on e-readers for teachers. 

How much do parents pay for this? Up to 75 percent of their family’s budget.

Bridge plans to expand to enroll 10 million fee-paying students in low-income communities by 2025, with the blessing of investors that include venture capital funds and the test-making giant, Pearson. Yes, it really is a small world after all.

Instead of ensuring that students in every community have public schools capable of responding to their needs, where teachers are equipped to nurture students and unlock their potential, governments are contracting with private operators in public-private partnerships. Increasingly, they are completely offloading that responsibility.

In Kenya, Education International did a report on Bridge, which operates 405 schools there, and found that Bridge’s promises fell short. “Far from providing high-quality education at a low cost to the most disadvantaged in Kenya, BIA education is of poor quality, inaccessible for the very poor and disadvantaged and is ultimately unaffordable for most families in the communities in which it operates.”

For-profit companies that promise an education they don’t deliver? That could never happen here, right? Well…let me think.

Look at Michigan, where two decades of growth in the number of unaccountable, for-profit charter schools has led to “marginal, and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities.” That growth has robbed the kids in those schools of the support, tools, and time to learn.

In Uganda, the Ministry of Education doesn’t object to all for-profit schools, but it says Bridge schools “lack proper licenses, approved curricula, adequate infrastructure, and qualified staff.” The country’s High Court ordered Bridge academies to shut down—yet the schools continue to operate, openly defying the court. Bridge also colluded with police in Kampala to rough up a Canadian researcher working on behalf of Education International.

The Trump-DeVos agenda will test our nation’s commitment to the ideal of an accessible, appropriate public-school education for every child. But we don’t have to go down the rocky, well-worn path of other nations; we can lead the world by going in a different direction. We can commit to resourcing our public schools so they can provide a well-rounded curriculum that inspires curiosity, imagination, and a love of learning in all our students.

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