Looking Backward, Looking Forward

The view from the rooftop restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England sweeps the skyline. My gaze feasts on church spires, gable rooflines, public statuary and green rolling hills in the distance. The old wing bespeaks the venerated architecture of British educated society; the new wing is the ubiquitous, state-of-the-art modernity of every museum showcasing high culture. The air is clear, crisp. I have before me a cup of British tea made with clean, free water.

The view from the Bridge International primary school in Nairobi, Kenya is limited to the nearby urban slums, a rutted dirt road, ramshackle roof tops. In the blinding sun, students run about in a barren, dusty schoolyard partially paved with concrete rubble. There is no sports equipment in sight. A sturdy, practical six-classroom, one-story school building is reminiscent of a P.O.W. camp. The design is state-of-the-art, low-cost construction for the poor. The clean latrines are privacy stalls centered above slabs of cement punctured with holes. The air is polluted, gritty. The students wash their hands with trucked-in tank water.

Bridge International, notwithstanding the rather bleak optics, is an exciting, dynamic experiment in educating the poorest urban slum children for success. Only operational in the last year or so, Bridge is building schools, training teachers, recruiting students and re-engineering educational expectations in the toughest neighborhoods in the world. It is needed because Kenyan public schools are bad, fee-ridden and foster bribe-a-teacher-to-teach schemes.

In brief, Bridge is a for-profit school system for Africa. Under beta test in the crowded, squalid slums of Nairobi, Bridge is applying Western-style management systems to create a company (financed by, answerable to and profitable for shareholders) which is parent-responsive, educationally sound and fiscally viable.

Bridge prepares Kenyan students for a globalized civilization of the future; the Ashmolean houses the artifacts of past civilizations, our global culture. Greek and Roman amphora, Middle Eastern ceramic tiles, Dutch paintings, modern art, furniture from the Middle Ages, Egyptian textiles.

Founded in 1683, 327 years before the first Bridge school, the Ashmolean is Britain's first public museum. It costs $1800.00 for Bridge International to build one classroom, financed with invested capital. The Ashmolean's newly built galleries cost $90 million, financed by government and public donations.

Bridge schools and the Ashmolean both serve the public interest six days a week. Kenyan parents pay $4.00 per month to send one student to school; there is no governmental or donor subsidies. Non-payment is enforced with expulsion. This is, first and foremost, a business. No tuition, no teaching. Admission to the Ashmolean is free.

Which social finance model better serves society? Private schools or public museums?

While governmental taxpayers and selfless donors finance the preservation of our civilized past (a global public trust, if you will), we relegate the world's youth (another global public trust, don't you think?) to the uncertainties of private sector businesses who - well-motivated and passionately committed - must turn away tomorrow's leaders for lack of a few Kenyan shillings. Does this make any sense?

300 years hence will a tableau in the Ashmolean museum depict the hundreds of thousands of kids around the world whose impoverished, slum-dwelling parents did not scrape together the fees to send them to school? Let's hope admission is still free so future generations can learn from our perverse priorities.

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