Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.
What Africa Can Teach Us About Educating Low-Income Kids at Scale
A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that the Mark Zuckerberg-backed Pershing Square Fund is investing $6 million in Bridge Academies, a private school chain in Kenya that serves more than 126,000 kids at a cost of $6 per student per month. I first learned about Bridge about two years ago after traveling in South Africa and hearing about other excellent “low-fee” private schools. After emailing with Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH charter schools in Boston, who now works for Bridge, I was fascinated with the scale and impact of this and similar models and struck by the lack of similar options in the U.S.
I asked Rebecca Oliphant, formerly of South Africa’s Centre for Development and Enterprise, to do a little research in international low-fee private schools. Here’s some of what she learned (thanks to CRPE colleagues Sean Gill and Jordan Posamentier for this summary):
Especially in developing countries, the private school sector is fast becoming not just an escape valve for wealthy families, but also an important option for low-income families. According to UNICEF, in many communities abroad, “private and non-state schools are the only educational option for disadvantaged and marginalized households and communities. Even where there is public provision of education, [non-state providers] offer a useful complement to their public counterparts as a means of improving the overall quality of education delivered and catering to groups with specific educational or other needs.”
In places as diverse as Kenya, Ghana, and India, some private schools have become a reasonable option even for the poorest families. In Hyderabad, India, researchers found registered private schools that charged less than $3 a month. In Ghana, registered schools had fees of about $7 a month, and unregistered schools charged approximately $4 a month, reports Education Next. In South Africa, registered schools charge tuition fees closer to $100 per month, with few offering monthly fees even below $50; however, these are still far more affordable than the traditional private school option.
In order to charge such low fees, but maintain quality, these schools need to scale. One of the most effective strategies to scale is to form networks of schools, which can help reduce the cost in curriculum development, training, and reduce the number of non-teaching staff by centralizing administration. Bridge International Academies, the largest network of low-fee private primary schools, is one of the most successful network models. Their target group is very low-income families in developing countries, charging around $6 per month. Their success in Kenya has led to more investment and an aim to reach 10 million students in the next 10 years.
The company has been able to integrate a complex array of educational products and services. “Bridge has established a new model for delivering quality education, leveraging data, technology, and scale to standardize everything from content development and teacher training to academy construction and billing.” Their “academy-in-a-box” approach has also achieved positive results, with students scoring higher in reading and math than those in neighboring schools. Bridge says their business model has proven to be efficient and effective and is scalable.
Many other affordable private schools similarly network to leverage economies of scale. Omega Schools in Ghana is based on a business model of scale. The cost of schooling, which includes learning materials, school uniforms, and lunches, is equal to the cost for families to send their children to public schools. The schools focus on integrating classroom curriculum and administrative management through technology. Their model contains perhaps an immediate form of accountability to parents—they charge fees on a daily basis, rather than monthly.
South Africa’s Spark Schools is a new low-fee network of schools using a blended learning model that integrates instruction with computer-based learning modeled after U.S.-based Rocketship Education, a charter school network. The use of technology can help in addressing one of the biggest costs to a school: teachers. In South Africa, a recent study by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) found that teachers comprise about 85 percent of the costs facing schools and that paying teachers competitive salaries was one of the biggest financial challenges for schools.
There are many examples of low-fee schools where teachers are paid more, facilities are better, and students have higher achievements compared to their public school counterparts. There are also areas where the opposite is true—where the facilities and the compensation are below that of the public schools; however, the students’ results remain roughly equal to, if not better than, their public school counterparts. Such is the case in Kenya, India, and Ghana. More than the facilities, quality teachers and strong leadership are paramount to their success. Some research shows that not only do these schools achieve quality results, but that the teachers are also more active and less absent, both in the registered and unregistered private schools.
As the saying goes, desperation is the mother of invention. In developing countries, demand for better, affordable schooling (and more permeable funding between public and private sectors) has driven the creation of a thriving low-fee private school industry. I went to South Africa to bring lessons from U.S. charter schools, but I returned thinking that the U.S. may be missing an important lesson on scale from developing countries. Why are we in the U.S. so boxed in that we cling to old delivery models for schools and are threatened by new ones? Why does the public versus private debate stifle innovation?
Low-income families need better options now, and sometimes the private sector can offer the fastest path to scale. When charter management organizations talk of opening 2 to 3 new schools a year and low-fee schools are opening 10 to 20 a year, we need to take note. There are many questions about whether these schools can maintain quality at scale and many questions about how they could be funded privately, or possibly with some public support via loan guarantees, social venture financing, etc. Regardless, it seems to me the issue deserves more attention, research, and consideration. Looks like we’ll have the opportunity soon with the expansion of Bridge into the U.S. market. I’m betting this will be a better investment for Zuckerberg and for kids than Newark, anyway…
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