- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MOSHI, Tanzania | To Josiah Mchome, a veteran teacher, nothing is more disheartening than the scene at the start of the school year.

Early in the morning, he sees children fill this vibrant, crowded city at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, proudly sporting colorful, though tattered, uniforms. Some have walked miles to school.

By midmorning, many reappear along the dirt roads, making the same journey in reverse. They’ve been sent home because they can’t pay the fees.

Like many primary school systems in East Africa, Tanzania’s is supposed to be free. But in practice, schools have replaced tuition with fees to pay for things such as textbooks and toilets, making education unaffordable to many.

To Mr. Mchome, that throng of disappointed youngsters is a vivid display of the hunger for education in a country building schools by the thousands and the still-huge gap between dream and reality.

“Often, they just go back to school and try to sneak back into class,” said Mr. Mchome, who works with a small charity for destitute students.

With 60 or more students per class, the strategy sometimes works. The steady stream of people seeking Mr. Mchome’s help in this city of 150,000 range from 6 to their early 20s.

Even if primary school is now at least within reach of many Tanzanians, fees shoot up in secondary school, which increasingly is viewed as essential but is still often hopelessly out of reach.

Flora Mrema is a rarity. She recently finished secondary school with help from Mr. Mchome’s group. She hopes to go on to university and become a lawyer. She coped with numerous interruptions, including one of five months for failure to pay fees.

“It’s just a slogan that the government offers free education,” said Ms. Mrema, 22.

Ten years ago, the United Nations set the Millennium Development Goals to tackle eight of the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems by halving rates of affliction in such areas as disease, poverty and lack of basic education by 2015, compared with where they stood in 1990. A summit to review progress is set for Monday through Wednesday in New York.

In universal primary education, progress has been substantial — 90 percent in South Asia, 92 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 95 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Worldwide, a U.N. report said in June, the number of children not in school has dropped from 106 million in 1999 to 69 million in 2008.

Sub-Saharan Africa also has made gains. In 1999, 58 percent of its children were enrolled in primary school. By 2008, the figure was 76 percent, though it remains the lowest in the world, accounting for almost half of the unenrolled.

Over the past decade, donor countries and international groups have pushed for abolition of tuition fees. In 2002, Tanzania followed East African neighbors including Malawi, Kenya and Uganda and made the first seven years of school free of charge.

The effect on school attendance has been striking, especially in Tanzania. A decade ago, primary school enrollment was about 50 percent. Today, according to government statistics at least, attendance nears 100 percent.

Neighboring Kenya reported that primary school enrollment has risen from 66 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank. Enrollment in Rwanda rose from 76 percent to 96 percent; in Zambia, from 69 percent to 97 percent.

But those figures mask a disappointing reality: Many thousands of students who show up for the first day of class drop in and out over the course of the year because they cannot pay the fees that have sprouted to up replace the abolished tuition charges.

Another problem: The surge in enrollment has compounded classroom overcrowding to an average student-to-teacher ratio of 53-to-1, according to recent figures. Some say it diminishes quality; when attendance goes up, completion rates go down.

In Madagascar, primary enrollment rocketed from 68 percent in 2000 to 99 percent in 2008. But the World Bank noted that 80 percent don’t finish primary school.

Some teachers and students question whether the trade-off is worth it if top students are dragged down by spending to include everyone. Tanzanians joke that the 1997 Universal Primary Education Program (UPE), “Ualimu Pasipo Elimu”in Swahili, actually stands for “teaching without education.”

In short, it has proved much easier to declare a universal right to education and even build schools than to build sustainable education systems.

“The schools mushroomed in every corner of the country,” said Mr. Mchome. Politicians “wanted to please their bosses — ‘we have a school here, we have a school there.’ But the facilities and teachers were just not there.”

Sygifrid Saweru, the principal of a newly built secondary school in Moshi, agrees that the expansion has been implemented poorly. He is deeply pessimistic about how his students will perform on upcoming exams. Many can’t write even in Swahili, let alone English, the language the curriculum uses in secondary school.

“We forced many to go to school, some capable, some not,” Mr. Saweru said. In a decade, perhaps, the resources will be in place. But for now, he said: “I’m worried they will leave without anything.”

Government funding has risen, but lags behind demand and population growth. A 2008 study of the Kilimanjaro region estimated that the real cost of primary school has doubled in the years since tuition was “abolished.”

To educate several million more students, the old tuition charges have morphed into fees. In government primary schools, these may not seem like much — about $25 dollars per year in Kilimanjaro — but they are still beyond reach for many in Tanzania, where the average woman has about five children to support.

In secondary school, the costs jump considerably: perhaps $20 per year for uniforms, another $20 for a “building fund,” $50 for food, plus charges for desks even if students bring their own, to give examples Mr. Mchome calls typical. Most demoralizing is a common fee for supposedly “supplemental” tutoring where teachers actually cover essential material. Students who can’t pay must leave the classroom.

Repeated phone calls and e-mails to Tanzanian government officials went unanswered.

Tanzania’s sclerotic bureaucracy undoubtedly is part of the problem, but the feeble tax base is built on almost impossible demographic arithmetic: Because of AIDS deaths and a high birthrate, half of Tanzania’s 42 million people are 18 or younger.

Many schoolmasters try hard to avoid sending students home. Some play hardball, cracking down on fee collections just before all-or-nothing national exams.

The law says students can’t be sent home for nonpayment, but it routinely happens through verbal finesse.

“They don’t say, ‘Go home because you haven’t paid your fees,’” Mr. Mchome explains. “They say, ‘Go home and bring the fees.’”

But overall, he and even hard-pressed students are sympathetic to the school administrators’ bind.

“We don’t want to tell students to go back home,” Mr. Saweru says. Warning letters are sent. But “when it becomes very hard and we cannot run the school, we have to tell them today you will not come to school unless you come with money.”

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