Guest Commentary by Julius Jeh
Like in 2016 when the Government of Liberia designed a public-private partnership (now the Liberia Education Advancement Program – LEAP) with Bridge Liberia, U-Movement, Street Child and Rising Academies and other non-state providers to run public schools, disagreements, and criticisms from some legislators and civil society have continued to this day. Recently, an education coalition and the National Teachers Association of Liberia (NTAL) renewed the usual critiques after some furloughed employees (as a result of Covid-19) had complained about the process, despite partners such as Bridge living up to the Ministry of Labor’s mandate per the COVID guidelines for the organization to pay non-essential staff half of their salaries, when not working.
NTAL has called many times loudly for Bridge to stop operating in Liberia, and waved placards. They are less active and vocal about making sure that Liberian teachers have their rights and are getting paid. The thousands of ‘volunteer teachers’ in government schools, wait in hope for the day that they will be put on the government payroll and paid for their work educating the country’s youth. NTAL is strangely quiet about this situation. Even more odd is that they campaign against organisations who are paying teachers while they wait to be put on the government payroll – making sure they can feed their families. I have not heard their raised voices offer any other practical ideas, better or worse.
Now, NTAL are working with two former employees in the LEAP programme who were dismissed for breach of contract; to help them in their campaign with a spree of unfounded and made-up allegations against the education provider, Bridge. NTAL is happy to continue their campaign, teachers who are working hard and getting support, are not. While many mainstream media entities have seen through the allegations of angry ex-employees, a few others have continued to peddle the false claims with complete disregard for the facts which have been outlined. Others will think twice about working in Liberia and bringing funding into the economy if they have to work in an environment where truth and facts are unimportant.
It has become messy, again. Ironic when the aim is to get from MESS to BEST. Despite the unfounded critique from these quarters, former Education Minister George Werner recently weighed in on the debate, expressing optimism that “public-private partnership is the future for education in Liberia.” Speaking on the popular OK Conversation on OK FM 99.5, Mr. Werner argued that it was a false sense of dichotomy from NTAL that private actors should not get involved in the provision of education, as the private sector is the original, historic provider of education. He noted that it is a win-win situation for the government and the public as entities like Bridge are providing better quality education with digital capability at a lower cost every year so far. When asked about NTAL’s recent comments he says it is not new and began when he built the programme originally. However, he notes it is things like this that stops Liberia progressing well. According to him, Bridge and other providers deserve commendation from the Union for paying government teachers (mostly volunteers) who were otherwise not being paid before the entities took over the running of the schools. Getting government teachers on the government payroll has been a long running challenge for all administrations.
The former Education Minister backed up findings from a three year study conducted by two american independent research bodies, that showed the Liberian Education Advancement Program – has increased learning outcomes significantly. Other countries are now adopting the model, thanks to its success in Liberia – as attested to by local educational officials, parents and guardians, even from the remote parts of the country.
Now with COVID, the programme in partnership with the MoE’s Emergency in Education continues to benefit Liberian students in all counties using radio, digital study materials and SMS – all remote parts of the country are still learning. In schools, teams are helping distribute food and teaching about hygiene as well as supporting all remote learning efforts.
Mr Werner believes Bridge is mostly being criticised once again because it is the lighting rod for the education program. LEAP’s success raises challenges for the development sector as a whole when it has seen the advances made by private providers in government systems. People are worried, not only about the success of the programme but the success of a big organisation in public education; even if it’s as a government partner. Bridge presides over the highest number of schools, and the expectations are high both in terms of learning and team performance. That is right and it is what we should expect from all institutions if we are serious about growth and prosperity. Mr Werner in fact expressed support for this approach “If somebody is not up to the mark on the job, it is not like our public sector where they would go to someone to beg. In the private sector we have a company to run, you can’t go there and expect to become a politician, pushing allegations to undermine the institution, damaging the chances of our youth, you should get pushed out.”
LEAP is a programmatic success for the country. It has a proud legacy for Mr. Werner even more so because it is championed quietly by the current Ministry of Education. The government should claim it loudly; instead the worry now is that other countries who visited Liberia in several years have replicated the programme and will steal the acclaim. Liberia as the first will be forgotten and we will have ourselves to blame.