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Russia: Costs Render Educational Reforms Almost Prohibitive

By Tony Weselowsky

Prague, 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Soviet educational system was monolithic in encouraging political obedience and discouraging initiative and freedom of thought.

Every day in every classroom across 11 time zones, school children turned the same pages in the same textbooks following the same strict lesson plan. No deviation was allowed.

Today, the countries of the former Soviet Union and East and Central Europe are no longer shackled by Marxist ideology. Schools are teaching topics that were once taboo. In Russia, history is being re-examined from a non-Marxist perspective. Some of the great Russian authors, such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, long banned by the Communists, are once again being studied and openly discussed.

But reform has its costs, quite literally. For all its faults, the Soviet educational system was relatively well-funded. As a result, it could boast of some incredible achievements, such as attaining nearly hundred percent literacy rates and envious results in the study of math and science.

Alessandra Cusan, consultant with the Economic and Social Policy Research Program of the UNICEF International Child Development Center in Florence, Italy, says schools are now scrambling for funding once provided by cash-strapped governments. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Cusan warned that with schools forced to turn to private financing, children from poorer families are being denied access to a quality education.

Her findings come in a recent study of Russia, the three Baltic nations, Ukraine and Poland. Cusan says her paper will be included in a comprehensive UNICEF study, due to be released in May, of educational reform in the so-called countries in transition.

Cusan says funding has rebounded in all five countries she studied, except for Russia. Financing there dipped to only three percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for both 1995 and 1996. The figures for similar time periods in Latvia and Lithuania were 6.6 and 5.6 percent, respectively. But with GDP at about half their 1989 levels in the region, Cusan says funding of education in real terms has dropped dramatically. Only Poland, Cusan says, has bounced back to pre-1989 levels of spending on education. Cusan says, the Baltics are in front in educational reform among the five countries she studied, while Russia and Ukraine lag behind.

Cusan says a lack of textbooks, crumbling classrooms and low teacher pay are among the most urgent problems facing schools. Especially worrisome, according to Cusan, are low teacher salaries which dampen teacher morale and drive away the most talented from entering the teaching field.

The cash shortage has prompted schools to turn to students' families to make up the loss of funding. Cusan said parents are being asked to pay for new textbooks that are in short supply partially due to rising printing costs. Schools are also asking that parents pay for courses most in demand, such as English and computer courses. Even free school lunches, according to Cusan, have become a thing of the past in many of the countries she studied.

Moreover, Cusan notes 45 percent of 16 to 18 year olds from poor backgrounds in Russia had dropped out of school, compared to 25 percent of students from wealthier families. Paradoxically, more Russian students--mostly from wealthy families-- now enjoy greater educational opportunities at the post secondary level.

Vocational schools also are closing as they face diminishing funding from the enterprises and as students see less prospects in attaining jobs in the enfeebled industrial sector, Cusan said.

Cusan warns that if the governments of the region do not increase funding for education they not only risk wiping out the bad elements of the previous system, but the positive legacy too.