Liberia’s Private Experiment in Education

published 31 July 2017 updated 31 July 2017

By Tyler Hook & the University of Wisconsin research team

The Ministry of Education (MoE) in Liberia launched the PSL pilot project in 2016, handing over 94 schools to 8 private service providers, enrolling approximately 27,000 students. Modeled after the United States charter and the United Kingdom (UK) academy systems, PSL is a part of a growing trend in educational governance reform known as a public-private partnership (PPP).

Defined as cooperative institutional arrangements between public and private sector actors, PPPs operate across scales and through interactions with local, regional, national, and intergovernmental organizations (Robertson et al, 2012, p.1). PPPs have increasingly been promoted in the education arena as a means of spurring innovation, increasing funding, expanding educational access, and improving learning outcomes (Patrinos et al, 2009). However, PPPs are not without their critics, who argue that these market-based reforms may exacerbate inequalities (Adamson et al, 2015) and undermine democratic accountability (Bhanji, 2012).

In Liberia, PSL is a described as a publicly financed, privately provided PPP that aims to improve educational outcomes in Liberian primary schools through private provision, increased competition and innovation, and improved government oversight (MoE, Feb. 2017). While the private sector and providers manage day to day operations at the schools and provide a philanthropic subsidy of at least USD$50 per student, the public sector is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the program, while matching the USD$50 per student subsidy. The private provider can also funnel additional resources into these schools, which the MoE claims has outweighed the philanthropic subsidy several fold (MoE, Feb 2017). Overall, proponents describe PSL as a bold and innovative reform that moves Liberia's education system from a mess to the best (MoE, Feb. 2017).

Essential to the success of any initiative in education, and in particular one as contested as PSL, are an evidence base, transparency and accountability. Toward this end, the MoE, in association with the UK-based charity Absolute Return for Kids (Ark), commissioned a three-year randomized control trial (RCT), to be conducted by Innovations for Poverty Actions (IPA). The RCT aims to evaluate PSL's impact on student learning, its cost-effectiveness, and if it reduced teacher absenteeism, improved teaching methods, and raised student enrollment (IPA, 2016, p.2). According to MoE documents, the RCT will help provide the framework for scaling up the pilot in subsequent years. However, despite repeated claims by the MoE that it will base its decisions on empirical research, it has already made plans to expand the project to a total of 202 schools in year 2, drawing criticism from the RCT/IPA team who have called on the MoE to wait for the empirical evidence and government capacity needed before scaling up (Romero et al., April 14, 2017).

Unanswered questions

With the MoE and service providers set to scale-up in year 2, this report examines year 1 of the pilot. To do so we review and analyze key documents related to PSL, specifically highlighting two reports: the Baseline Report (March 2017) conducted by IPA, and the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE) monitoring report (2017).

This is supplemented by the recently released midline assessment reports by four service providers (More Than Me, Rising Academies, Street Child, and Bridge International Academies) and local and international media accounts of PSL thus far. Throughout, our report focuses on three areas: transparency and accountability; impact on students and teachers; and scalability and sustainability, as these areas represent both the justifications for, and potential concerns emerging from, these partnerships.

Through the document analysis, we identify several successes, challenges, questions, and issues that deserve further attention. Such issues include the MoEs capacity to hold service providers accountable; vast inequalities among providers, particularly between local and international providers; a continued lack of transparency on financial documents, agreements between the MoE and service providers, the commissioning of partnership schools, and the relationship/input from communities and key school stakeholders in the PSL process; and concerns regarding the impact of PSL on the overall educational ecology, including potential overcrowding in neighboring schools, and growing inequalities/disparities between PSL and traditional public schools.

The report concludes with a description of our research and how it would have complemented the RCT. The report hopes to introduce a more open research environment, that takes into consideration a variety of research methods. While we look forward to the RCT midline report due out in August 2017, we argue throughout that no single study can provide a complete picture of the impact of such an extensive reform, and encourage all actors to support an open research environment.

Works Cited:

Adamson, F., Cook-Harvey, C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Whose choice?: Student experiences and outcomes in the New Orleans school marketplace. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Bhanji, Z. (2012). Transnational private authority in education policy in Jordan and South Africa: The case of Microsoft Corporation. Comparative Education Review, 56(2), 300-319

IPA. (2016). Cabinet Briefing: Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) External Evaluation.

MoE (Feb. 2017). Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) Final Project Document.

Patrinos, H. A., Osorio, F. B., & Guáqueta, J. (2009). The role and impact of public-private partnerships in education. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Robertson, S. L., Mundy, K., Verger, A., & Menashy, F. (2012). An introduction to public private partnerships and education governance. Public Private Partnerships in Education: New Actors and Modes of Governance in a Globalising World. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1-17.

Romero, M., Sandefur, J., Sandholtz, W.A., Laws, D., Hares, S., Horn, R., Collins, J. and O. Siddiqi (April 14, 2017). Open Letter: The Future of Partnership Schools for Liberia.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.