Thursday, April 23, 2020

Free Education in the DRC

Free Education in the DRC
By Francesca Dishueme

The administration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the country where the majority of my family was born and raised, announced an initiative to enforce free education for primary school-children. A policy which has been introduced in the past and guaranteed by the constitution. The refund of school fees is in the works. I have my reservations.

While it is written in civil law, the ideal of compulsory education is simply not met throughout the DRC. Enrollment numbers are not suitable for a country nearing 81 million inhabitants. According to Northwestern University, enrollment rates stand at “40% overall for primary and secondary schools, and attendance is even worse in rural areas of the east where ethnic conflict persists”. In 2017, a national study on the DRC conducted by UNICEF found that an average of 95% of Congolese children are not participating in early childhood education or primary education. With the battered history and context of the DRC, government spending is a national concern. Unfortunately, a lot of progress has been at a snail's pace due to mismanagement of funds and corruption. There are so many systemic issues at play with the DRC and the education sector is no different.

Relatively, the public education I have seen in America while attending a public school myself is, granted, one that's ideal compared to places around the world. I'm familiar with “free education” being somewhat circumstantial. This past year, my fees for taking my chosen courses came out to $147. That’s just for classes. In my high school career (3 years), my family has spent around $1,000 for fees.

School fees are mandatory. They go directly towards providing adequate supplies and materials, teachers' salaries to recognize their labor and continuous training, the upkeep of school maintenance, ensuring transportation as a way to acknowledge the wide radius of students. Technology, lunches, courses, etc., etc.. Fees are the indirect costs to allocate for a school’s infrastructure and resources. So, it does act as a condition to getting an education.

America strongly enforces the law that requires a child to attend school for however many days out of the year. It’s an obligation to send your child to school. For low-income families at a greater disadvantage, they can be accommodated in order to maintain equal opportunity. For example, lunch fees would be reduced or completely waived if a family expressed financial insecurity. All in all, the system does its best to cater to a student's situation. The American school system as a whole centralizes and develops the change-makers of tomorrow because it’s free in its’ delivery. Access to education is free whereas tuition is not.

In the Congo, a Central African country with high unemployment and extreme poverty, struggle and stress find a home. The scale of urgency and vulnerability often forces the children to step up to the plate. So in too many cases, the decision is made to exclude education for the sake of reducing expenses. It’s not fair for children to strain themselves in their search to supply their family’s income. It’s not right for a child to choose between survival and education. That alone makes me incredibly frustrated. Theoretically, free education sounds beautiful. Right now, households in DRC are the major source of funding a school receives. That should not be the case, the Government should help foot the bill. “Promising to provide “free” education is not only in keeping with international standards and requirements, it is popular with people.” says Dr. Christina N’tchougan-Sonou, who has directed education projects in Africa for over 20 years. But reform needs to be practical before it is introduced to families that have been regularly under-served by former education policies. “If a school cannot collect some money from the parent, and the government doesn’t send the funding they promise (payment of teacher salaries, school building construction and maintenance, teaching materials), then the school directors don’t have anything to work with and sometimes have to close a school.” As mentioned, the chance of Government spending to actually reach the education sector and families is slim.

Congolese children often share their plea for access to quality education and a roadblock routinely mentioned is the adversity they face due to school fees. Of course, educational inequality should be eradicated and it is the Government’s responsibility to invest in its children. But, how in the world are schools to be funded? The new initiative for free education takes a commendable stab at raising school enrollment, but fails to address quality of education. Especially if there should be a sudden stream of enrolled students, the resources don’t stand a chance.

Mostly free education is a reasonable goal for the best interests of the schools and the children. I’m hoping for a more multi-sectoral response and better oversight by the higher-ups that can correct education management and accountability for DRC’s school network. Eliminating fees is a ways to go looking at the country’s trajectory. Before the kids get accustomed to a fleeting prospect and become even more disoriented by instability, questions should be raised. Will free education lead to the ineffective regulation of schools?


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