The school year is starting next week in Central Asia, but the problems associated with funding schools and finding teachers are more difficult than any of the problems students are likely to face in the classroom. In part one of our two-part series, "Back to School," RFE/RL looks at the continuing education crisis in Central Asia.
Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The school year starts next week in Central Asia, but the hardest problems will not be those that students face in classrooms.
In much of Central Asia the population is increasing, while money for education has been cut and wages are falling. Steve Sabol, an expert on Central Asia at the University of North Carolina in the U.S., says standards are dropping.
"The schools are not nearly as good as they were 10 years ago. They've lost scholars and teachers who are not getting paid and who could not afford to continue in education. The institutions of higher education are, while good, not nearly what they were 10 years ago for the same reason," Sabol said.
That was the message Kazakh Deputy Education Minister Kulash Shamshidinova gave to a conference in the capital Astana on 27 August.
"Unfortunately, an analysis of the educational situation shows an alarming tendency of a decrease in the quality of learning on every level," Shamshidinova said.
Kazakhstan, however, is better off than poorer countries to the south.
In Tajikistan, the government cannot afford to invest in schools, while parents in some cases cannot even afford the cost of notebooks and pencils.
"We went to the market to buy school supplies but it was all so expensive. They had everything, but it costs so much. What can I do? I had to buy it for my child. School starts on 1 September, and I wanted him to go to school happy," a mother in Dushanbe says.
This young schoolgirl tells RFE/RL her mother cannot afford to buy her new clothes this year: "My name is Mehranghez. I want to dress like my school friends. Every year my mom dressed me [for the new school year] but this year she cannot afford to."
An average wage in Tajikistan is about $17 a month. Clothing alone for a child can cost a monthly salary, and then there are pencils and books to buy. Some Tajik families have five or six children or more, meaning the cost of sending children to public school with the essentials and new clothes requires saving for months.
One merchant, Komron, says he sells school-related products -- children's clothes and school supplies -- from both China and Dubai. The Dubai products are better but the cheaper Chinese goods sell faster.
In Kyrgyzstan, where the average monthly salary is about $30, the situation is better, but many parents still choose to send their children to private schools since public schools are considered poor.
"My child goes to the second grade this year. We arranged for him to attend [private school] because the quality is higher there. We pay 160 soms [about $4] monthly, plus 6 soms daily for hot lunches. It is quite expensive. In addition to it, we had to buy textbooks last year because the school could not provide them. This year, we have not yet paid for textbooks, but we have already spent more than 1,000 soms for clothes, schoolbags, pens, etc. This is only for one child, but some families have two or three children in school. They have to send their children to the public schools, where there are about 40 pupils in a classroom and the quality of teaching is low."
A spokesman for the Kyrgyz Education and Culture Ministry, Mamasaly Apyshev, said the government is working with teachers and officials to improve the quality of education in public schools.
"This year officials of the ministry, prominent scholars, authors of new textbooks, and other experts -- together with local authorities -- met with teachers to familiarize them with new methods and innovations in education. We will have the results on what we achieved last year by 5 October -- Teachers' Day. After that we can prepare for the new school year what changes we have to make," Apyshev said.
The start of the school year in Turkmenistan comes after some dramatic changes. Students are now required to complete two years of state service after secondary school before they can apply to universities. Turkmenistan no longer sends students abroad and less than 1 percent of the country's population is accepted into the university system each year.
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, several years ago, ordered that textbooks be rewritten to give Turkmenistan a more prominent place in history. In addition, students are now required to study the president's own text, "Rukhnama."
(Edige Magauin of the Kazakh Service, Khiromon Bakoyeva of the Tajik Service, and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report)