Parents of U.S. students often complain about things like too many standardized tests or unhealthful school lunches. Kenya wishes it had such problems.
Kenya dropped or greatly reduced fees at public schools nearly a decade ago in an effort to make education available to all children. On one level, it's been a success — school attendance has soared. Yet this has also exacerbated chronic problems that include shortages of qualified teachers, books, desks and just about every other basic need.
Kenya is struggling to have universal primary education by 2015, but its experience highlights the frustrations of a poor country trying to meet such goals.
When visitors arrive at a Kenyan primary school it's something of an event. At Amboni Primary School, north of Nairobi and just outside the boundaries of the spectacular Aberdare National Park and game reserve, children stream out of their classrooms and break into a song: "Everybody today is happy to see you ..."
A decade or more ago, many of these kids might not have been in school. They would have been hauling water, tending sheep or working in farm fields. Still, Kenya's nine-year-old experiment with free education is not working out as people had hoped.
Getting Rid Of Fees
In 2003, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki eliminated expensive school fees for primary schools and lowered them for secondary schools. The move honored a political promise and followed a trend of free public schools in the neighboring states of Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi.
"I come from a very poor family such that I was always going home [to collect] school fees," says Agnes Munuhe, a 50-year-old teachers' adviser, the 11th of 13 children of a subsistence farmer and his three wives in central Kenya.
Because her parents could not always afford the fees, Munuhe didn't learn to read and write until she was 16 and did not finish high school until she was 25.
When Kenya dropped school fees the result was dramatic. Public school enrollment went from 6.1 million to 7.4 million in just two years, from 2002 to 2004, and has continued climbing. The increase has included many girls whose families had held them back in this conservative society.
But Kenya's tottering school system could not handle the flood of new students, and the situation has not improved as the initial crush of primary school students works its way through the high schools.
A Teacher Shortage
"Kenya needs 80,000 additional teachers. It's that serious," says Munuhe, standing outside a classroom at the Kabiru-ini Girls Boarding School in central Kenya.
Girls in green sweaters and bobby socks hurry across the ramshackle campus past bougainvillea bushes and drooping bottle-brush trees. Inside the tin-roof classrooms, it's common for five girls to share one textbook.
"The government had hoped for a ratio of two students to one book, but this is not doable," Munuhe says ruefully. "The books are not there."
And steep school fees are coming back. Two weeks ago, the Kabiru-ini principal had to send home 100 girls — nearly a third of the school — to ask their parents for money for things like teacher salaries, examinations, uniforms and new buildings.
A study published by Britain's Sussex University in 2007 found that Kenya's free schools were "a matter of political expediency ... not adequately planned and resourced," and as a result, there have actually been more dropouts and a falling quality of education.
Conversely, the number of private schools has increased tenfold as parents look for alternatives to overcrowded classrooms.
The situation is similar in neighboring Tanzania, which did away with school fees a year earlier in 2002. The student population also skyrocketed, leading to packed classrooms, book shortages, overused toilets, a teacher scarcity and an increase in paddling students to keep order.
A Search For Donors
With the Kenya Education Ministry stretched thin, schools are looking everywhere for foreign donors.
In that regard, Mahiga Hope High School in central Kenya scored big. The Nobelity Foundation, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, stepped in to build a handsome two-story, stone classroom; a covered basketball court; a water system; computer and science labs; and a library of donated books, from To Kill A Mockingbird to Harry Potter.
"Go to other schools; they literally have nothing," says principal Jane Wainaina. "The classrooms are wooden; the floors are mud. Mahiga Hope High School has been extremely lucky to have the Nobelity Project with us."
But even with help from abroad, the Mahiga school struggles.
The government, in theory, contributes $120 per student per year, but the subsidies arrive irregularly and are still not enough. Wainaina, too, sends three-quarters of her students home to collect money from their parents, most of whom are poor farmers. Some of the students drop out and never return.
"It is not free as such," she says, "They use the word free, but it's not free."
Even with all the problems, school administrators say more Kenyan children go to school than they did in the past.
At an impromptu lecture by a visiting journalist at Mahiga High's Journalism Club, two dozen bright-eyed students listen intently to a talk about the importance of independent reporting.
"I want to be a journalist," one student says shyly. "I want to help Kenya."
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Parents in the U.S. complain about bad public schools, top-heavy bureaucracies and too many standardized tests. Those problems would be a luxury in Kenya. Kenya is one of four East African countries struggling to meet a U.N. Millennium Development Goal. It calls for universal primary education by 2015. NPR's John Burnett has this story on the frustrations of a poor country trying to educate all of its young people.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Under Kenya's faltering experiment with free education, all young people are supposed to be here at school, in class instead of home hauling water or tending sheep.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) We are happy. We are happy together. We are happy. We are happy together.
BURNETT: Consider the way it was before. Agnes Munuhe is a 50-year-old teachers' adviser, the 11th of 13 children of a subsistence farmer and his three wives in central Kenya.
AGNES MUNUHE: I come from a very poor family, a very poor family, such that I was always going home for school fees.
BURNETT: Because her parents could not always afford those school fees, Agnes didn't learn to read and write until she was 16 years old, and she finally finished high school at 25. Then in 2003, Kenya President Mwai Kibaki - honoring a political promise and following a trend sweeping East Africa - eliminated fees for primary schools and lowered them for secondary schools. The result was dramatic. More than a million kids streamed into the crumbling classrooms, including many girls whose families had held them back in this conservative society. These bright-eyed girls in green sweaters and bobby socks recite their lessons at Kabiru-ini Girls Boarding School in Central Province.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: But Kenya's tottering school system could not handle the flood of new students when the doors were opened to everyone nine years ago, and the situation has not improved today. So Kenya needs 80,000...
BURNETT: ...additional teachers.
MUNUHE: Teachers, yeah.
MUNUHE: It's that serious.
BURNETT: What this means is you can find one teacher teaching 60 students. In some classes, five students share one textbook. And as for education being free, primary schools regularly ask parents for fees, and last Monday, the Kabiru-ini School had to send home 100 girls to ask their parents for money for things like teacher salaries, exams, uniforms and new buildings. Margaret Kamau(ph) is the deputy principal.
MARGARET KAMAU: The records are almost half of the school will be out to collect money. It's a challenge.
BURNETT: A study published by Sussex University in 2007 found that Kenya's free schools were a matter of political expediency. They were not well-planned or funded, and as a result, there have actually been more dropouts and a falling quality of education.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 10.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 10.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 11.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 11.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 12.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 12.
BURNETT: Preschool students learn their numbers at Mahiga Hope High School in Nyere County. Principal Jane Wainaina says the government contributes, in theory, $120 per student, but the subsidies arrive irregularly, and they're still not enough. She, too, must send some students home to collect money from their parents. Sadly, some never return to school.
JANE WAINAINA: It is not free as such. The government subsidize, but they use the word free, but it is not free.
BURNETT: Mahiga Hope is more fortunate than most rural Kenya high schools. It has a two-story stone classroom building, a basketball court, computer and science labs and a library.
WAINAINA: Go to other schools, they literally have nothing. The classrooms are wooden. The floors are not done. It's just mud all over. So let me say Mahiga Hope High School, we have been extremely lucky to have the Nobelity Project with us.
BURNETT: The Nobelity Project is a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that builds classrooms, labs and water systems for schools in the developing world. Mahiga Hope High School is an example of how the Kenya school system - as it works toward universal free education by 2015 - depends on private donors.
But even with all these problems, school administrators, like principal Wainaina, would not turn the clock back. They worry whether Kenya's next president - to be elected in 2013 - will make a commitment to continue the struggle for a truly free education for all. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.