For Profit Education, Huh?

Matthew G. Saroff
14 min readMar 29, 2023

Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman decided to set up a for-profit operation to run schools in Africa.

Their business model appeared to be:

  • Underpay teachers by about 60%.
  • Inflexible curriculum.
  • Poor vetting of teachers and lax management.
  • Break local laws. (They call it,”Disruption.”)
  • Vociferous pursuit of critics, including what appears to be an attempt to inspire mob violence against them/

If this sounds a lot like charter schools in the United States, you would be right.

It appears to be collapsing into a morass of corruption and greed:

In the early days of the era of Silicon Valley disruption, two Harvard University graduates dreamed up a bold experiment in education.

Shannon May, who studied education development in rural China, and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, an education software developer, spied an untapped opportunity for some of the moving-fast-and-breaking-things going on all around them.

They call it disruption. People with functioning senses of right and wrong call crimes.

………

Over the next decade, Bridge grew into a chain of schools providing a homogeneous curriculum developed by researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hundreds of thousands of students in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Today, it is the largest for-profit primary education chain in the world.

As the company mushroomed, it found ready investors. “It was not social impact investors,” May said in a 2016 MIT video case study, “it was straight commercial capital who saw, like, wow, there are a couple billion people who don’t have anyone selling them what they want.”

But the social impact investment crew was behind Bridge, as well. The company is financed today by some of the highest-profile do-good donors in the game — or rather, the for-profit arms of their networks, including Chan Zuckerberg Education, LLC, linked to Mark Zuckerberg; Pearson Education; Gates Frontier LLC, tied to Bill Gates; Imaginable Futures, linked to eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, a major funder of The Intercept; and Pershing Square Foundation, tied to billionaire hedge fund mogul Bill Ackman. The United Kingdom’s development bank, the European Investment Bank, and the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank funded it too.

To become profitable, May and Kimmelman had to scale up quickly while keeping costs down. “Bridge International Academies was founded from day one on the premise of this massive market opportunity, knowing that to achieve success, we would need to achieve a scale never before seen in education, and at a speed that makes most people dizzy,” an early version of the company’s website boasted. To do well with small margins, thousands of classrooms would be needed, because each classroom could bring in a profit of just tens of dollars a month. “The urgency is because the only way you can have a price of $5 a month is if you have hundreds of thousands of customers. We need 500,000 pupils to break even,” May said in 2013.

Their idea of how to accomplish such scale was straightforward: The largest cost when it comes to education is teacher salaries. But if curricula can be centrally produced and distributed on tablets that teachers read to the class, word for word, then teacher pay can plummet.

What they are saying here is that Africans are stupid, and they are worthless as teachers, so they can hire parrots instead of teachers.

That, May believed, would not hurt the quality of education children received. While the school reform movement in the United States at the time was fighting against what it called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — easier curricula for minority students that reflected racist assumptions about their learning capacity — May argued that in Africa, high expectations are bigoted. “‘Don’t you have to have brilliant teachers in every room in order to have a well-educated child?’ ’Cause honestly, that’s how a wealthy person would think of it,” May explained. “You can’t have a brilliant-teacher hypothesis and expect to change the education for hundreds of millions of children.”

So, you are saying that second best is OK, because Africans are not real people who deserve the full rights and consideration as human beings.

Your business model is basically the Dredd Scott v. Sandford.

It was also appropriate to pay those teachers less, she argued. “You have to be able to upscale the teachers that would be available within the same community as your child. How are you going to get tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands, of teachers to be working with hundreds of millions of impoverished children? They need to be from the same community. They need to face similar challenges. But also economically, they need to be part of the same economy.” Hiring teachers who are “part of the same economy” meant paying them just a few dollars a day.

………

In 2022, Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer conducted a study in Kenya to assess the efficacy of standardized learning at Bridge schools. The resulting report, which Bridge heavily promotes, found that public school teachers in Kenya were paid between $235 to $392 per month plus generous benefits, while Bridge teachers worked longer hours but earned around $80 per month with considerably fewer benefits than their public school counterparts.

“By not requiring post-secondary credentials, which typically represent a smaller share of the labor force in lower-middle income countries, Bridge has been able to draw from a larger pool of secondary school graduates,” the study read.

So, a high school diploma enough, and no training because it’s all in the software. I’d never trust that to my car mechanic, much less someone teaching my children.

………

Bridge also whacked away at the second highest education costs: facilities. According to Kremer’s study, while public schools in Kenya were required to have stone, brick, or concrete walls, Bridge designed standardized schoolhouses largely out of wooden framing and mesh wire, enclosed by iron sheeting — derisively dubbed “chicken coops for kids.” “Bridge’s founders recognize that the model deprioritizes physical infrastructure and they have argued that this frees up resources for expenditure on other inputs that can improve school quality,” the Kremer study noted. “Bridge schools are not made of ‘mesh wire’; they have windows with mesh wire,” a Bridge spokesperson said.

So, poorly trained teachers, poor facilities, disdain for the students and staff, and a desire for rapacious profit.

If that ain’t a recipe for bad education, I don’t know what is.

“Our biggest challenge is that we need to ensure we standardize everything,” Kimmelman was quoted as saying in “Bridge International Academies: School in a Box,” a 2010 Harvard Business School case study. “If we want to be able to operate like McDonald’s we need to make sure that we systematize every process, every tool, everything we do.” They later revised it for branding purposes to “academy in a box,” May said, “when we realized everyone here calls a private school that’s good an academy.”

McDonald’s? Seriously? And people thought it was making the world a better place?

I am sure that it made the world a better place for May and Kimmelman, who doubtless were well paid by venture capitalist cash.

Investors were familiar with the model: The company would understandably lose money in the early years, but as long as growth was steady, profitability could ultimately be reached. And, with enough scale, it might eventually loosen regulatory obstacles in the same way that ride-hailing app companies become too big for a city or state to do anything but accept them and adapt.

So, conspiracy to commit crimes, and once you are big enough, you are hoping to roll regulators and politicians, because criminality is at the heart of disruptor philosophy.

………

“Technically, we’re breaking the law,” May said in a 2013 article in the education publication Tes — a quote that was reused in a mostly favorable 2017 New York Times profile of Bridge. “There would be more people and more organizations willing to try and push the envelope and get higher pupil outcomes if the regulatory and legal framework was less restrictive,” May went on. “You have to be extreme. You have to take real risks to work in those environments. Often there are [laws] preventing most companies from trying to figure out how to solve these problems.”

Bridge quickly became the darlings of the Davos world. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim lauded the firm publicly in a 2015 speech. Whitney Tilson, a New York-based Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager, called it “the Tesla of education companies” in 2017.

What a surprise, an abusive and exploitative business model that gets rave reviews from the denizens of Davos.

Also, I can’t believe that I am saying this, but that is unfair to Tesla.

Cory Doctorow calls this ensh$#tification, and normally a business has to be around for a while, but they baked this in from the start.

That year, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lavished nearly 1,000 words of praise on Bridge schools in the West African nation of Liberia, chastising teachers unions and other opponents of outsourcing public education abroad to for-profit companies. “So, a plea to my fellow progressives,” he concluded. “Let’s worry less about ideology and more about how to help kids learn.”

Nicholas Kristof, the former New York Times writer who has an almost perfect record of not understanding charity and inequality.

If that ain’t a red flag, I don’t know what is.

………

Then, in March 2022, the World Bank’s financing arm — the International Finance Corporation — quietly divested from NewGlobe, the parent company of Bridge International. No announcement was made. No reason was given. Just a short disclosure in small print at the bottom of a portal that reads, “Update: IFC has exited its investment in NewGlobe Schools, Inc.”

So, they discovered something. Something bad.

Not a surprise when you hire the worst people and put them in the worst facilities, and assume that you can do this with litter or no oversight.

Among locals and within the global network of civil society organizations that work on development projects, rumors swirled that the dark side of Bridge’s success may have played a role — specifically, a series of abuse and neglect allegations in Kenya that had caught the eye of a Nairobi-based human rights group, the East African Centre for Human Rights, or EACHRights, as well as the internal watchdog at the World Bank, known as the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, or CAO.

………

During lunch break on a school day in the spring of 2016, David Nanzai, an eighth-grade teacher at Bridge Kwa Reuben, a school in the Mukuru informal settlements in Nairobi, found an anonymous handwritten note between the pages of a Kiswahili textbook sitting on his desk.

………

Eventually, they figured out who had written the note, and as they investigated further, they found at least 11 girls, aged 10 to 14, had been assaulted. They suspected three other girls may have been too frightened to come forward.

Reporting by The Intercept — including interviews with parents, former Bridge teachers and staff, nonprofit workers, community leaders, education activists, and police officers — corroborated the scope and many of the details of the sexual abuse. Many of the sources asked for confidentiality, expressing fear of reprisal from Bridge and concern about a culture of secrecy.

Of course they had a culture of secrecy. That’s Theranos, that’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell.

Break laws and savagely enforce omerta.

………

Nanzai reported his findings to Josephine Ouko, his school’s academy manager, similar to a principal. Ouko, whom The Intercept was unable to reach for comment, called a staff meeting in her office with the alleged perpetrator in attendance. The other teachers confronted him, seething. Initially, he denied the allegations, according to four Bridge teachers present, but the teachers played audio recordings of Nanzai’s conversations with the students and shared their written testimonies.

………

After the meeting, the teachers expected Ouko, the academy manager, to notify Bridge and call the police. But Ouko told them to leave her office so she could speak to the teacher alone, the four teachers said. The next thing they knew, the man had disappeared into the maze of crowded dirt streets that make up the Mukuru informal settlements. He was gone.

………

Told that The Intercept had identified the alleged perpetrator by name, a Bridge spokesperson acknowledged the abuse had taken place and confirmed the former teacher’s identity. Asked why the company had previously dismissed our inquiry, the spokesperson said that the company thought we were referring to different allegations.

Different allegations? Someone has been very remiss in their oversight.

And, in a letter from Bridge’s attorneys, the company added the threat of a lawsuit against The Intercept, citing the “potential for legal action” if the story was published. “The rare and isolated misconduct of a few bad apples should not tarnish the incredible work that these educators are doing in their communities every day,” read a letter from Andrew Philips, an attorney with Clare Locke LLP, positing that the problem was simply endemic in Kenya. It was, he wrote, “important to acknowledge the sad reality that sexual abuse of students by teachers has historically been a serious problem in Kenyan schools.”

First, the saying is that “A few bad apples spoil the barrel.”

Secondly, suggesting that you do not have to do proper oversight, because Kenya is, to quote Donald Trump, “A sh$#-hole country,” is racist and dismissive.

The legal threat was a glimpse into the aggressive posture Bridge had become known for, a reputation that was forged in the global press amid its battle in Uganda with a Canadian graduate student named Curtis Riep.

………

On May 30, 2016, just weeks after the teachers and parents had reported the abusive teacher to the police in Nairobi, Curtis Riep sat down in a café in Kampala, Uganda. A Ph.D. candidate in educational policy studies at the University of Alberta, Riep was in the city compiling a report on Bridge schools for Education International, a global federation of teachers unions.

He had managed to schedule an interview with a Bridge national director and a regional manager. As the men began their conversation, Riep began recording, as he did for all such meetings, so that he could later transcribe the answers.

So Riep’s recorder was rolling when moments later, a plain-clothed police detective dressed in a suit — or, at least, a man identifying as one — and two self-proclaimed officers in militarized uniforms carrying assault-style weapons approached the table. Riep later transcribed the resulting exchange verbatim in his dissertation.

“I work with the police — the Uganda police,” the “detective” said to Riep after exchanging pleasantries with the executives. “I’m going to be taking you now.”

………

It would later emerge that Bridge officials in Uganda had accused Riep of gaining access to Bridge schools by impersonating a teacher.

“There’s a school where you went to,” the plain-clothed man claiming to be a police detective said, telling Riep he “must come with me now.”

………

None of the three men with guns would identify themselves, and Riep made one last bid to connect on a human level with the Bridge director. “Please, I don’t know if these are real police. I mean, I don’t want my life to be in jeopardy. So, if you feel like you really need to protect yourself and Bridge to this extent, I think it is a mistake. Let’s not make this more of an issue. You are the director of Bridge so obviously we can sort this out another way,” Riep pleaded. The director was silent.

“Can we get moving?” the detective asked.

“Sure, well it was nice to meet you and I think we will see each other again very soon,” Riep told the two Bridge executives, and then turned off his recorder.

He was escorted to an unmarked car, noting that the men bore a “striking resemblance” to the private security guards the Ugandan elite hire to protect their homes and businesses.

Inside the car was another man, who identified himself as an attorney for the government of Uganda, but whom Riep later told the press he learned was a lawyer working for Bridge. They passed the Kampala Central Police Station and kept driving for more than an hour and a half, arriving at a two-room, clapboard police station in Kyengera, home to a front office and a holding cell. Four media outlets waited outside, filming Riep’s arrival. Two Bridge officials held forth about the danger Riep represented to the community. Riep, in his dissertation, said that the station’s police were confused about why he was there, which raised further questions about who the men who had “arrested” Riep at the café were.

He was interrogated by the police for several hours and told that Bridge had taken out an advertisement in a major local paper a few days earlier, on May 24. The ad warned the public Riep was “wanted by the police,” underneath a photograph of his face.

Riep in his dissertation later described the ad as “a very risky proposition in a country with an upswing of violent mob justice happening in the streets of Kampala.”

They were trying to get him killed.

After being released on bond, Riep was required to return the next day for more questioning. Fortunately for him, he had consistently signed into logbooks at schools under his own name and affiliation, according to reporting by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Bridge could produce no staff witnesses or other evidence to sufficiently back up the claim that he had impersonated Bridge personnel. The police dropped the charges, he later wrote, but they warned him that Bridge may “come after you again.”

………

The High Court in Uganda soon moved to shutter 63 Bridge schools on the basis that they were “operating illegally because they have no provisional or other licenses.” Bridge fought the order in court but lost, though it has continued fighting and has not closed its schools.

The Uber model. Remember Uber does not do background checks either, and has had some horrifying incidents of assault.

………

Bridge had been battling a growing coalition of opponents for years, establishing a reputation as a sharp-elbowed company that responded aggressively to any hint of criticism.

In 2014, a Kenyan court ordered Bridge schools closed in one county for not complying with the minimum safety and accountability standards for educational institutions. When the county education board moved to enforce the court’s decision two years later, Bridge responded by suing the board and its director on the grounds that they had not followed the required process.

………

The investigation of the Bridge investment has become the center of a controversy at the World Bank over investor responsibility when it comes to “negative externalities” — the euphemistic term for damage that results from investments — and the nature of the accountability process inside the IFC, the World Bank’s financing arm.

………

Seven years after David Nanzai discovered the note on his desk, the case remains unresolved and officially unsolved, and the victims uncompensated. The teachers we spoke to for this story have all left Bridge schools. But the IFC is working on a new framework to deal with such “negative externalities.”

Translation, a few rapes is OK, because investors make money.

………

The Intercept also asked the IFC, Chan Zuckerberg, and the Gates and Omidyar funds what, if any, responsibility investors had to remedy the situation. “Any instance of harm to a child is unacceptable,” said a Chan Zuckerberg spokesperson. “We would refer you to the letter from Bridge Kenya on the practices it has in place to safeguard students and immediately investigate reports of any safety issues.”

A spokesperson for Omidyar’s Imaginable Futures said the fund owns a 2.7 percent stake in the company. “We refer you to the statement provided to you by Bridge Kenya,” the spokesperson said.

………

The company commissioned an education consultancy, Tunza, to evaluate its practices and policies. The report, published in 2020, found that public schools faced far greater rates of abuse than Bridge schools, though the methodology betrays an extraordinary confidence in Bridge’s reporting systems. For public schools, the study relies on anonymous surveys of students. For Bridge schools, the report largely relies on actual cases that were reported to higher-ups and investigated. The report, funded by Bridge, gently suggests that Bridge ought to, at some point, also survey its student body to find out if its assumption about nearly universal reporting through official channels is accurate.

The consultants were hired to obfuscate, not find the truth. McKinsey & Company writ small.

………

Despite its efforts to address these issues, there have been other troubling cases at Bridge Kenya, both before and after the 2016 incident at Mukuru Kwa Reuben.

Court records show that in 2017, several prepubescent female students were sexually harassed by a teacher at another Bridge school in Mukuru. The teacher was arrested, and the case is still being adjudicated in court.

Because the efforts are window dressing.

This is how foreign investment works in the third world.

It is abusive and exploitative because that is what the investors want, and so that is what the developed nations, and the constellation of civil society organizations deliver, because that is who signs their paychecks.

Unless and until some of the senior executives get tried, convicted, and imprisoned in those countries, this will continue, because everything else is just a cost of business.

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