U.S. Teachers Unions Oppose School Choice in Africa

Published May 2, 2017

Bridge International Academies (BIA), a for-profit startup founded in 2009 and funded by high-profile donors—including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the World Bank—operates more than 500 schools, primarily in Kenya and Uganda.

“Independent research shows Bridge pupils have fluency and comprehension scores 37 percent higher, and maths [sic] scores 24 percent higher than their peers in neighboring government schools,” BIA’s website states. “In the 2016 Kenyan National Exam, Bridge pupils got an average of 59 percent compared to the national average of 44 percent.”

Legal Challenges, Union Opposition

In November 2016, Uganda’s high court ordered the education ministry to close BIA’s 63 Ugandan schools, alleging teachers are unqualified and the schools are not up to the country’s standards.

As of April 2017, BIA was appealing the high court’s ruling, and the schools were still operating.

BIA has also been criticized by teachers unions throughout the world.

In March, Kenya’s high court ordered an injunction prohibiting the secretary general, agents, and officials of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) from making or publishing defamatory statements against BIA.

Education International (EI), a global federation of teachers unions, said in October 2016 BIA “has created a business plan based on strict standardizations, automated technology, cheap school structures, and internet-enabled devices that are used to carry out all activities that make up an education system.”

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said BIA’s “for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education and depriving them of their natural curiosity to imagine and learn,” calling the company’s model “morally wrong and professionally reprehensible.”

In a March Wall Street Journal article, Eric Hanushek wrote, “Unprecedented [academic] gains led World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015 to single out Bridge for helping lift students in the developing world into the modern age. His words of praise enraged Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. ‘The World Bank’s promotion of the fee-charging, for-profit Bridge International Academies in Kenya and Uganda is not an appropriate role for the institution,’ she said.”

Says Unions’ Concern Is Money

Lennie Jarratt, project manager for the Center for Transforming Education at The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News, says educating children is, at best, a secondary concern for teachers unions.

“If the teachers unions were truly interested in an educated populace, they would embrace any innovation that delivers access to a quality education to poor students around the world,” Jarratt said. “Instead, they invariably choose to use the power of government to stifle and prevent any innovation that does not provide unions with the ability to fill their coffers with more money.”

Jarratt says U.S. teachers unions use predictable tactics to smother competition.

“Teachers unions in the United States use the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and local teacher unions in [other countries] to put pressure on foreign nations’ governments, to crack down or shut down low-cost private schools,” Jarratt said. “They use much of the same rhetoric they do here. For instance, they might say, the teachers in these schools are “unqualified,” or that these schools are “not accountable to government authorities.”

Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, says the unions have reason to fear competition.

“Probably because if privatization works in Africa, the unions are afraid its success will spread,” Sand said. “And their fear is justified.”

Union Rule Consequences

Sand says he’s experienced first-hand the destruction teachers unions can cause.

“I was [last in, first out] in New York in 1975,” Sand said. “I taught at a tough school in Harlem, and the city was in dire fiscal straits. Hence, a few thousand teachers had to be laid off—based on seniority—and I was one of them. I may not have been the best teacher in the world, but I was far more competent than some of the more senior teachers who held on to their jobs. 

“Also, wherever I have taught in my 28-year career, every teacher, every kid, every parent, and even the janitors knew who the incompetent teachers were,” Sand said. “We all knew, and so did the principal, but all she could really do was minimize the damage by curtailing students’ exposure to these teachers as much as possible. Imagine having to decide which unfortunate students get stuck with him or her.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Eric A. Hanushek, “American Teachers Unions Oppose Innovative Schools—in Africa,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/american-teachers-unions-oppose-innovative-schoolsin-africa