Tech Funders Love This Outfit Educating the World's Poor. Now Here Comes the Pushback

Bridge International Academies (BIA)—which aims to bring low-cost private education to the poorest children of the world—has done a stellar job of attracting big money from big players in the tech world. Mark Zuckerberg invested $10 million in the edutech company while Pierre Omidyar and Bill Gates along with a handful of other partners, made a collective investment of more than $100 million in BIA.

And you can see why, too. BIA argues that its tech-based teaching model is disruptive, replicable, and scalable—a total game changer when it comes to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of providing universal primary education worldwide, a goal which has so far remained elusive. BIA has a long-term plan to educate over 10 million school children overseas, beginning with Africa and Asia. Currently, it has just under 120,000 kids enrolled in its schools. 

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Established in 2009, BIA presents a powerful alternative to the idea that government should be in charge of education. And while challenges of this kind have encountered fierce opposition in the United States, as well as practical obstacles of cost, poorer countries are a much more fertile ground to scale up mass private education. For one thing, as we've reported, low-cost private schools already exist in great numbers in many countries. For another, state failure on education can be so egregious in many societies that it's harder to argue with giving alternatives a shot. 

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BIA's model is Internet-based, with most teachers using Nook tablets for lesson plans and to collect test results, at a low cost. BIA also has standardized systems, which keeps costs down while offering a greater level of ease when it comes to replicability. “It’s like running Starbucks,” said one investor.

But is a implementing a business model like that of Starbucks the best approach to education in developing countries? More critics are now saying "no." They are calling out BIA and its supporters on a number of points ranging from its $6 per month per child price tag to teacher training.

Earlier this year, Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, which has invested a reported $10 million in BIA, made a speech lauding BIA's efforts, noting that the schools were an effective means of alleviating poverty in Kenya and Uganda. The problem? Many Kenyans and Ugandan parents cannot afford private education. And as it turns out, doubts are emerging about BIA's math regarding that $6 per month per child charge. In a statement released by the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opponents of BIA are calling this a “profound lack of understanding of the reality of poor people’s lives.”

We won’t get too deep into the cost variables, here, but think of the $6 per month per child charge as a base fee. Add into that the cost of textbooks, uniforms, and exam fees, and these families are looking at a total monthly bill ranging from $9 to $13 per child, per month, according to critics. And if you add meals into the equation, that number jumps to between $16 and $20 per child, per month.

Now, defenders of low-cost private schools have long said that, as a practical matter, such schools are no more expensive than public schools, where parents also end up bearing various costs that can add up quickly—only to find that their childrens' teachers don't show up in the classroom half the time (a common problem in schools in poor countries).  

Whatever the case, higher than reported costs for BIA students are problematic because it's operating in poor countries with families earning between $2 and $5 per day on average. Affordability isn’t the only issue for BIA here. Opponents are claiming that BIA teachers are trained for a mere five weeks before they are placed in a classroom. 

Again, to be fair: That's more training than many of the teachers in existing low-cost private schools ever got, and a poorly trained private teacher is better than a public no-show teacher

So what's the overall verdict here? It's hard to say, but this flap underscores three points about BIA: One, its model is still relatively new, and there are outstanding questions about its scalability and quality in terms of reaching the world's very poorest kids with education that can really change their lives. So far, the only data BIA has relied on is what it has gathered itself, which is hardly unbiased. Two, there definitely do seem to be transparency issues, here, in terms of BIA's actual costs. And three, it's clear that BIA can't expect smooth sailing just because it's operating in poor countries and doesn't have to deal with opponents like the American Federation of Teachers. 

Will any of these questions scare off tech investors like Gates, Omidyar, and Zuckerberg, all whom are big proponents of using technology to make education more affordable and accessible? We doubt that, but we wouldn't be surprised to see a push by BIA to respond to its critics with new outside research on its model and greater transparency about its costs. 

Still, don't expect data to resolve this fight, which is ultimately deeply ideological in nature. Should public institutions—which, in theory are accountable to all citizens—educate children? Or should it be private companies, which may theoretically prove more nimble and effective at delivering results? On this overarching question, there is less and less consensus these days.