LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In the developing world, millions of children are either not in school or attending classes where learning to read or write is far from guaranteed. Recently, several for-profit companies have started opening low-cost private schools in Africa aimed at families living on less than $2 a day.
NPR's Jason Beaubien looks at the largest, a new chain of low cost schools in Kenya.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Bridge International Academies promises to give poor Kenyan kids a world class education for roughly $5 a month. And one of the things allowing Bridge to keep its tuition so low is large classes.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)
BEAUBIEN: In the port city of Mombasa, teacher Cynthia Mueni is leading a first grade class of 72 students through a lesson on shopping. Kids are packed into rows of wooden benches. Mueni smacks the blackboard to punctuate each vocabulary word. The school manager, Brian Orieno Barasa, says the ideal class size at Bridge is 40 to 50 kids, but he adds that Mueni can handle 72 students without a problem.
BRIAN ORIENO BARASA: She does that job perfectly well. She ensures that homeworks are met on time, classwork is given on time, and everything's done on time and perfectly done.
BEAUBIEN: Mueni holds a chalk dusted ruler in one hand. In the other, she holds a black tablet computer. Mueni's entire lesson is scripted on the tablet. Every example is provided to her by the mobile device. Everything she needs to say to the class is listed. Jay Kimmelman, one of the co-founders of Bridge, says the eReader is central to Bridge's radical teaching method.
JAY KIMMELMAN: One of the core functions of our tablet technology is to enable us to disseminate and distribute the content to every teacher in the right place at the right time.
BEAUBIEN: Even though none of Bridge's schools have electricity, the company uses tablets and Smartphones connected to the local cell phone network to monitor teachers, take attendance, upload test scores and submit timesheets. Parents even pay their tuition through a cell phone text message system. Kimmelman says his company is using mobile technology to streamline their operations so they can profitably offer education for just $5 a month.
And he sees huge opportunities to expand in the developing world.
KIMMELMAN: We believe that we can be educating at least 10 million people around the world who come from families who live on less than $2 a day and giving them an education that's truly world class, that's truly globally competitive.
BEAUBIEN: He says hundreds of millions of poor families in poor countries don't have decent educational options for their kids.
KIMMELMAN: Either they can go to a government school where 45 percent of the time teachers don't show up, and even if they do, the parents know they're not getting a quality outcome; or they can see private schools popping up that are typically much more expensive than they can afford.
BEAUBIEN: Another company in Ghana is also building a chain of low-cost private schools aimed at some of the poorest of the poor. Their for-profit model, however, is different from that of Bridge. They offer private school in daily increments so parents who are struggling financially can buy a day of schooling for their children for 75 cents.
DAVID ARCHER: It sounds cheap and it gives the impression that you're reaching the poorest, but you're not reaching the poorest.
BEAUBIEN: David Archer, the head of program development with ActionAid in London has been involved with the issue of education in low income countries for years. He says he's alarmed by the recent growth of low cost private schools in Africa.
ARCHER: The poorest are unable to pay fees up front to access basic education.
BEAUBIEN: Archer says the best way to improve education in the developing world is through public schools. He acknowledges that there are lots of problems at government schools in the poorest countries on the globe. They lack resources. Teachers need more training. But he says setting up a parallel private system damages public education by pulling the most motivated families out of the system.
ARCHER: The potential for education, which can be the most powerful equalizing force in any society, is undermined if you have a fragmented system.
BEAUBIEN: Archer says there are some interesting ideas being generated by the new entrepreneurs. He likes what Bridge is doing with tablet computers in the classrooms, but he says there's no reason those innovations can't be incorporated into government schools. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.