The following was written by Pretoria-based ASFL Executive Board Member, Martin van Staden.
The West African nation of Liberia is apparently on the road toward privatizing its early childhood education system.
The Ministry of Education announced back in January that Bridge International Academies, a private American firm with over 200 schools in Kenya, would take over pre-primary and primary education in the educationally underdeveloped nation.
Partial or full privatization has been fiercely criticized by teachers unions, journalists, and most predictably, the United Nations. According to Special Rapporteur Kishore Singh, governments should primarily provide education within their jurisdictions – not private companies. The Mail & Guardian Africa, itself a news source, believes that the privatization of education is “just wrong”, regardless of what positive outcomes it may yield. The unions, as could be expected, see the job security of their members to be threatened, given Bridge International’s nontraditional focus on teaching-by-technology.
This is not ideal, indeed, but for other, more logical reasons than the aforementioned. As libertarians we criticize monopolization, whether by a state agency or by a state grant to a private company. Bridge International has a contract with the Liberian government which amounts to it simply taking the government’s position with regard to early education. The market has not been freed of barriers, and the government ‘retains’ its ‘right’ to revoke this contract each year, thus re-nationalizing the sector. This spells uncertainty, a lack of competition, and possibly, just scapegoating for the Liberian government. According to the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa’s Eustace Davie, for entrepreneurs and investors to consider the education system as a viable opportunity, “governments would have to relinquish their existing dominance over and control of education.”
However, it is most certainly a step in the right direction. The government says that it seeks to eventually outsource all early childhood education to private providers, thus implying that Bridge International will not retain this monopoly in perpetuity. Indeed, without this barrier to entry, other international, and hopefully local, firms could step in and provide parents and children with a wide range of choices. The resulting competition will ensure that all firms strive to keep their customers satisfied with their service.
“Students worldwide desperately need entrepreneurs to become involved in education provision, to marshal resources, both human and physical, that will provide them with a diversity of educational choices allowing them to develop their talents to the fullest. [However, these entrepreneurs] are hamstrung by statutory and regulatory barriers that prevent them from fully employing their entrepreneurial talents to improve educational offerings.”
Little has been reported recently regarding where this initiative is going at this stage. Big government advocates will surely oppose it every step of the way, and, if it materializes, will hope that it fails, because it will give them another opportunity to construe market liberalization and privatization as harmful to human prosperity. Bridge International, however, is but a single firm, and without competition and wholesale deregulation, no failure, or success, can be attributed to market forces. Hopefully the Liberian government delivers on its promise to open the educational market up to other private providers soon.