In this column, Nicholas Kristof defends the takeover of schooling in Africa by Bridge International Academies.

Kristof says that since the government failed to provide basic education, it is welcome news that BIA is doing it, for a fee. The investors include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

He writes that American liberals should get over their squeamishness about privatization and for-profit operation of what are supposed to be public schools.

I think Kristof is wrong because BIA is a short-term fix, not a solution. It cannot possibly educate the hundreds of millions of children whose parents can’t afford to pay. By providing this “fix,” the government are relieved of their obligation to establish a universal, free public school system with qualified teachers. If teachers are sleeping in their classrooms, who should take responsibility? Who should supervise them and make sure that every child has a decent education? That is the government’s job. Addressing the systemic problems of low-quality public education would accomplish far more than creating a for-profit corporation to offer scripted lessons to some. BIA is not a long-term solution, and surely Kristof knows this. Why is he willing to settle for such a bad deal for the children in impoverished nations? This is a lifeboat strategy: instead of righting the ship, throw life preservers to a few (at a price).

Kristof chastises progressives and union leaders for their hostility to BIA:

“I’ve followed Bridge for years, my wife and I wrote about it in our last book, and the concerns are misplaced. Bridge has always lost money, so no one is monetizing children. In fact, it’s a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a nonprofit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable.

“More broadly, the world has failed children in poor countries. There have been global campaigns to get more children in school, but that isn’t enough. The crucial metric isn’t children attending school, but children learning in school.”

Did he read Peg Tyre’s article in the New York Times magazine about BIA?

Although Kristof presents BIA as a grand venture in philanthropy, it was billed by its founders as a start-up that had the potential to grow into a billion-dollar company.

Tyre wrote:

“Bridge operates 405 schools in Kenya, educating children from preschool through eighth grade, for a fee of between $54 and $126 per year, depending on the location of the school. It was founded in 2007 by May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014. Just as titans in Silicon Valley were remaking communication and commerce, Bridge founders promised to revolutionize primary-school education. ‘‘It’s the Tesla of education companies,’’ says Whitney Tilson, a Bridge investor and hedge-fund manager in New York who helped found Teach for America and is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

“The Bridge concept — low-cost private schools for the world’s poorest children — has galvanized many of the Western investors and Silicon Valley moguls who learn about the project. Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the World Bank have all invested in the company; Pearson, the multinational textbook-and-assessment company, has done so through a venture-capital fund. Tilson talked about the company to Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund manager of Pershing Square, which ultimately invested $5.8 million through its foundation. By early 2015, Bridge had secured more than $100 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The fact that Bridge was a for-profit company gave pause to some NGOs that work in developing countries. But others reasoned that in the last decade, for-profit companies backed by what are called social-impact investors — people and institutions that make money by doing good — had successfully brought about important innovations, like solar-power initiatives and low-cost health clinics, in poor countries. Bridge’s model relied on similar investors but was even more ambitious in its dreams of scale. ‘‘There is a great demand for this,’’ May said in an M.I.T. video from 2016. Some of the company’s backers, she said, were ‘‘not social-impact investors,’’ continuing that ‘‘it was straight commercial capital who saw, ‘Wow, there are a couple billion people who don’t have anyone selling them what they want.’ ’’ For a 2010 case study on the company, Kimmelman told the Harvard Business School that return on investment could be 20 percent annually.”

So, some investors were making philanthropic investments (what’s a few millions to Gates or Zuckerberg?), but the founders imagined a company returning 20 percent annually. BIA currently has schools operating in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda and is opening in India. It planned to go public this year. “By 2016, they planned to enroll more than 750,000 students, at which point they would be breaking even. By 2022, they estimated that they would educate 4.1 million students and generate $470 million in revenue.”

Tyre shows that many families can’t afford BIA’s fees. If the parents don’t pay, the students are sent home.

Kristoff says, so what, as long as the children are learning. He cites a study commissioned and released by BIA.

BIA released a study called “The Bridge Effect,” which showed the success of its model. Kristoff cites it as evidence of success. Tyre took it to two independent experts, who found it inconclusive because 50% of the BIA students dropped out during the course of the study.

“I asked two experts in statistics — Nat Malkus, from the American Enterprise Institute, and Bryan Graham, from the University of California, Berkeley — to help me evaluate the findings. “This is good evidence of positive effects,” says Malkus. Both pointed out that the study’s results are complicated by Bridge’s high dropout rate: While a third of public-school students dropped out, nearly half of Bridge students left during the study and were unable to take the final assessment. ‘‘The high attrition rate should give one pause,’’ Malkus says, ‘‘when considering the full effect of the program.’’ Graham, co-editor of The Review of Economics and Statistics, says that ‘‘organizations are under a lot of pressure to do these studies and ‘prove’ their program works. Reasonable and informed people could look at the information in that report and come to widely different conclusions about the effect of Bridge on academic achievement as they measure it. It’s information, just not especially actionable information.”

“Another area of achievement that Bridge trumpets is the success of its students on the eighth-grade K.C.P.E. test. In 2015, according to Bridge, 63 percent of Bridge students who had been there for at least two years passed, compared with 49 percent of Kenyan students nationwide. But it’s unclear whether Bridge’s approach will be sustainable as the company grows. Former Bridge employees told me that in preparation for the 2015 exam, those on track to get a lower score were asked to repeat a year. The rest were taken to a residential cram school and prepped for the test by teachers who flew in from the United States.”

Tyre reports that BIA has had trouble hiring and retaining teachers. Turnover was high. Then BIA signed them to two-year contracts and warned that they would be docked the cost of training if they left before two years. That reduced churn. Teachers read their lessons from a script on a tablet called a Nook. The teachers are “managed” by text messages or robocalls.

“Some Bridge staff members described what they saw as a stark contrast between their hopes for Bridge and a grittier reality. One school administrator, an academy manager, described how the pressure to ensure that parents made their payments on time was disheartening. ‘‘I didn’t realize how hard it would be to talk to parents,’’ he said. ‘‘They’re ill, they’re out of work, they had a fire. No one is in the house who’s making any money. How can they pay when they have no money for food?’’ And working at Bridge, teachers said, can disrupt a career: Instructors are required to sign an employment agreement that includes a noncompete clause that prevents them from working at other nearby schools for a year after they leave.

“In the public and informal Kenyan schools I visited, school administrators welcomed my impromptu drop-ins warmly, showed me their classrooms and introduced me to their teachers, who spoke frankly about their challenges. Bridge teachers and managers say that sort of openness is not allowed. At some Bridge schools I visited unescorted, staff members said that they would need to contact superiors if I didn’t leave.”

The most peculiar part of Kristof’s article is his revenge to the situation of for-profit schools in the U.S., most of which are notoriously corrupt and thrive by using public funds for lavish marketing.

Kristof writes:

“But my travels have left me deeply skeptical that government schools in many countries can be easily cured of corruption, patronage and wretched governance, and in the meantime we fail a generation of children.

“In the United States, criticisms of for-profit schools are well grounded, for successive studies have found that vouchers for American for-profit schools hurt children at least initially (although the evidence also shows that in the U.S., well-run charters can help pupils).”

I don’t think Nick reads much about education, only what he sees in his own newspaper, although he clearly missed Peg Tyre’s article.

If he thinks governments are corrupt, he should take a look at the for-profit charter sector in the U.S. Furthermore his reference to voucher schools is wrong. The latest research shows that students who enroll in voucher schools (whether for-profit or not) lose ground academically, but if they persist for four years, they catch up to their peers in public schools. How is that helping children? If the same money were spent reducing class sizes in their public schools, all students would benefit.