In Prossy Nsereko’s cramped office, the writing is literally on the wall.
One side is covered with peppy, hand-written slogans: "Winners never quit." "We are what we believe we are." On the other is a list of school fees.
Ms. Nsereko is the academy manager, or principal, of a Bridge International Academy in Nsumbi, a hump of urban sprawl in central Uganda. Her office walls show the two faces of Bridge, a fast-growing chain of private academies that markets itself to parents earning less than $2 a day: part school for the poor, part profit-seeking enterprise.
It is a combination that thrills investors and appalls some activists – and that has thrust schools like this one, a lime-green mélange of brick, chicken wire, and metal sheeting, to the center of debates about the future of education.
Since July, the Ugandan government has been trying to close all 63 Bridge academies in the country, the first of which opened just last year. In November the High Court upheld the government’s effort, ruling that it had followed the correct procedures.
Bridge is appealing, and the schools, which educate 12,000 of Uganda’s 8.7 million pre-primary and primary students, have stayed open pending another ruling, probably in January.
The government says it does not object to for-profit schooling, but argues the academies lack proper licenses, approved curricula, adequate infrastructure, and qualified staff. Bridge schools are not yet fully licensed by the Ministry of Education and Sports, and not all its teachers are certified.
The company argues that many of its schools have been recommended for licensing by district-level officials and should be given time to complete the process.
"We are here to help the government do what it couldn’t do," says Nsereko, arguing that Bridge, which teaches children up to grade 6, offers parents a choice outside the underfunded, overstretched public sector.
Public education advocates have broader concerns about the role of for-profit schools in Uganda. "For us this is not about Bridge," says Salima Namusobya of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, a Ugandan NGO that has published critical reports about private schooling. "It’s about the right to education for all children in Uganda regardless of their social status."
At the primary level, the proportion of students enrolled in private institutions has doubled in a decade, standing at 17 percent last year. That entrenches inequality and undermines the public sector, says Ms. Namusobya.
But dissatisfaction with public schooling is what has driven parents to private alternatives.
Near the Bridge Academy in Nsumbi is a government-aided school where one classroom has more than 120 students, some sitting on the floor. Another has no teacher. In a third, children are lining up to be caned – an illegal but widespread practice.
Teachers in public schools are absent from class 57 percent of the time, a World Bank study found in 2013. A 2015 report by the survey group Uwezo revealed that a quarter of seventh-graders could not read or do math at a second-grade level.
Bridge was founded in 2008 in Kenya, where it has more than 100,000 students, by American entrepreneurs Jay Kimmelman and Shannon May. It also runs schools in Nigeria and India. Omega, another for-profit chain, has 20,000 students in Ghana. Both companies are involved in a controversial pilot effort in Liberia, where the government is contracting private groups to run public schools.
As rich countries cut international aid to basic education after the global financial crisis of 2008, commercial schooling attracted new types of investors: Bridge, whose model become profitable only at scale, has harnessed more than $100 million from the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pearson, a sprawling education company that also makes textbooks and administers exams. The Bridge vision is bold: to educate 10 million children across a dozen countries by 2025.
Bridge's focus is on cutting costs. The company’s "school-in-a-box" model churns out budget school buildings through an in-house construction company. Lessons are scripted centrally and relayed to teachers through tablet computers.
That allows Bridge to charge fees that are competitive with, and often undercut, locally run private schools. Its fees in Uganda, including uniform, average around $6-8 per month, rising to $9-11 with breakfast and lunch – though even that amount is beyond the reach of the poorest. Public schools in Uganda abandoned fees 20 years ago, but parents still must pay for such things as uniforms and lunches.
Teaching unions, who have led the campaign against Bridge, accuse it of chasing profits while skimping on the basics, like qualified teachers.
"Would they do it in America where they’re coming from?" says James Tweheyo, general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union. "So why should it be done here?"
Bridge teachers are paid relatively low salaries of about $63 a month. Andrew White, Bridge expansion director in Uganda, says its teachers get "more than 70 percent [of salaries] in similar private schools" and are paid on time, unlike many elsewhere. Teacher attendance, which is monitored by the tablet computers, stands at 95 percent.
Discussion of Bridge’s business model is a distraction, Mr. White argues. "We want to move beyond this ideological obsession with profit or non-profit and focus on whether kids are actually learning."
Though there have been no independent studies on learning outcomes in Bridge schools, its exam results in Kenya are higher than the national average. Whether that reflects teaching or social background is unclear – a randomized controlled trial is in the pipeline to disentangle those effects.
Parents need no convincing, though they are not necessarily well-informed. Several said that all Bridge teachers are qualified and that it runs schools in the United States, although it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, Education International, a worldwide federation of teaching unions, has been a vocal critic of for-profit schooling. Last week, in partnership with the Kenyan teachers' union, it released a scathing report that accused Bridge of exploiting its teachers and forcing parents into debt. While the education minister welcomed the report, Bridge says the claims are "unsubstantiated and inaccurate" and accuses unions of pursuing "a self-interested agenda."
The market for education
"When you close Bridge, where are our children going to go?" asks Janet Namakoye, a parent.
Education officials have said that Bridge students can be absorbed into public schools. Ms. Namakoye scoffs at that idea: "Let them first take their children to government schools and I will take mine."
Private alternatives abound, though they are not always cheap. Fee-charging schools sell to students from offices in downtown shopping arcades. Banks and micro-lenders advertise school fee loans. Even many of the leaders in the Education Ministry own schools, says a spokesman.
Ismail Mulindwa, private schools commissioner at the Ministry of Education and Sports, reckons that there are 6,000 private primary schools in the country, with four new ones opening each week.
"The government has not built capacity to really cater for all Ugandan children," he says. "So inevitably private schools come in to fill the gap."
The Sustainable Development Goals – an ambitious set of targets agreed by world leaders last year – envisage a "free, equitable, and quality" education for all by 2030.
But in recent years, the Ugandan government has spent just over 2 percent of GDP on education – well short of the 4 to 6 percent advocated by UNESCO and the international education community. Half of all education spending comes directly from households.
Brash, branded, and brimming with ambition, Bridge operates on a different scale from locally owned outfits. But it raises the same question: whether private schooling complements the public system or undermines it.
"It’s another choice," says White. "We are not here to replace the state."
Namusobya is not so sure. "The government is now giving up its responsibility because of the growth of private actors," she warns.