From Lima to Lagos to Lahore, low-fee private schools (LFPSs) have taken root, proliferated, and generated controversy. While advocates argue these schools fill a void created by state failure and catalyze improvement in public schools through competition, opponents counter that fees, however nominal, bar many poor children from matriculating and thus segregate students by means. Recent NCSPE working papers by Francine Menashy (No. 224) and Tamo Chattopadhay and Maya Roy (No. 233) both addressed this conflict.

To nullify the effect of fees, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have evolved to cover costs for all students at LFPSs, much in the manner governments in many developed countries have long put vouchers to use. With backing from the World Bank, a PPP in Pakistan called the Punjab Education Foundation implemented precisely such a voucher system in 2012 and has since gained additional support from the UK’s Department for International Development. In 2016, Liberia followed suit with its own PPP called Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL). The country’s Ministry of Education selected eight contractors to manage 93 public primary schools.  Ark, a nonprofit school operator and charity based in London, matched national annual per-pupil spending of $50 at 70 schools run by seven contractors. In running the remaining 23 schools, the eighth contractor, Bridge International Academies, a for-profit network steered by Americans and headquartered in Nairobi, contributed considerably more money, in large part for start-up costs.

After the first year of a three-year randomized control study of PSL conducted jointly by Innovations for Poverty Action and the Center for Global Development, researchers concluded in a report issued in September that “public schools managed by private contractors in Liberia raised student learning by 60%, compared to standard public schools.” Yet this conclusion came with significant qualifications.

In the opinion of Steven J. Klees, professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland, these qualifications did not go far enough. Klees explains in "Liberia’s Experiment in Privatizing Education" that the test scores themselves require reanalysis, with greater scrutiny, in particular, of results on baseline tests administered at the beginning of the school year. Klees also writes that more weight must be given to four advantages at PSL schools: extra instructional time and classroom resources afforded by the study’s supplementary funding; and control over both hiring and class size conferred by the study’s guidelines.

Grounded in close attention to the dynamics of testing as well as the politics of Liberia, this working paper tells an important story about the ascent of privatization in the developing world and raises serious questions about its evaluation.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
October 26, 2017