Chanting "Bridge to nowhere" and "Education should be free," education advocates and labor leaders rallied April 21 at the World Bank to protest its support for Bridge International Academies. The for-profit education agency preys on poor African and Asian families by charging unaffordable fees for substandard education in the countries where they operate. At the same time, this shoddy system undermines public education in the places that need it most.
"We need to remind the bank what its priorities should be—supporting public education, not privatizing schools that create a few winners at the expense of millions of children," said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson (pictured below), who helped lead the rally.
"By supporting the expansion of low-fee private schooling and other competitive practices, the World Bank is ensuring that a large number of the world's most vulnerable children have no hope for a quality education," leaders of several international teachers unions wrote in a letter to Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank. "We believe that a high-quality public education must be recognized as a public good, and that the provision of education is a primary responsibility of governments, not corporations and entrepreneurs."
International education leaders at the rally included representatives from the International Labor Rights Forum, the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the Kenya National Union of Teachers. Other sponsors were the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO, the Global Campaign for Education, the Uganda National Teachers' Union, Education International and Public Services International.
Protesters decried the Bridge Academies' unqualified staff; highly scripted, standardized curriculum; and overdependence on electronic tablets pre-set with rigid lesson plans—cost-cutting techniques designed to minimize operational costs and maximize profit. In fact, the Ugandan government shut down 63 Bridge schools last year, citing unqualified teachers, poor sanitation and a disregard for national legal and educational requirements. The situation is similar in Kenya, where one teacher, quoted by EI, described the teaching methods this way: "We do not plan any lesson. We follow the tablets to the letter. We are robots being directed by tablets."
Johnson underscored the AFT's solidarity with the African unions, and noted that the United Nations' sustainable development goals, ratified by both Uganda and Kenya, call for free, high-quality education for all children. Bridge Academies represent the opposite, she said: "Bridge exploits families; parents spend more than half their income on fees. Bridge's curriculum doesn't meet minimum standards. Bridge teachers are poorly paid and treated like robots."
In short, she concluded, "Bridge schools are a laboratory for a 'marketized' vision of higher education that its investors want to spread around the world."
[Virginia Myers, AFT and EI press releases]