Government “free school” Program – A Victory?
February 13, 2013 Haiti Kale Je/Grassroots Watch. Original article here. The teacher chants out words to students who have no books, papers or pencils in a Darbonne public school. Photo: HGW/Marc Schindler Saint Val
The Program for Universal Free and Obligatory Education (Programme de scolarisation universelle gratuite et obligatoire – PSUGO) seeks to educate “more than a million” students per year for five years, according to the Ministry of National Education and Professional Training (Ministère de l’éducation nationale et de formation professionnelle – MENFP). But is the US$43 million-a-year program a “victory” for students?
A two-month investigation by Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) in Port-au-Prince and Léogâne discovered problems and a great deal of dissatisfaction. In addition to suspicions of corruption, the amount paid to the schools is clearly inadequate, the payments don’t arrive on time, and the professors are underpaid. Also, most of the schools visited by journalists had not received the promised manuals and school supplies, items crucial for assuring a minimally acceptable standard of education.
“In my opinion, the PSUGO is a failure!” exclaimed Jean Clauvin Joly, director of the Centre Culturel du Divin Roi, a private school in Croix-des-Bouquets about 15 km. north of the capital. “Last year, we suffered under that program. One of the many terrible things was that we were paid late. Thanks to the delay, a lot of our teachers quit.”
At Joly’s school, the first and second grades share the same room and the same teacher: Francie Déogène. A thin sheet of plywood that also serves as a “blackboard” separates her classroom from others. Dérogène doesn’t have a desk. She piles everything on a plastic chair. Facing her, on four benches, ten students repeat together “a pineapple, a melon…” This is a writing course.
“The state guarantees the right to education”
During the most recent presidential elections, “lekòl gratis” or “free school” was one of the refrains of the singer-candidate Joseph Michel Martelly, sworn in as president on May 14 2011.
But in Haiti, the guarantee of free education is not just a politician’s promise; it is above all an obligation, according to the 1987 Constitution which says (Article 32): “The state guarantees the right to education” and “education is the responsibility of the state and its territorial divisions. They must make schooling available to all, free of charge, and assure that public and private sector teaches are properly trained.”
According to the MENFP, the PSUGO program aims to pay all school fees for the first and second cycles of schooling, roughly equivalent to primary school. The amounts allocated are 250 gourdes (about US$6) for public school students and about US$90 or 3,600 gourdes for those at private school. (In Haiti, most schools – a little over 80 percent – are private.) In addition to paying the school fees, PSUGO promised to open new schools, and to make sure students had the necessary school supplies and books.
One of numerous banners annoucing that 1,287,214 children “are sitting in school for free.” Photo: HGW/Marc Schindler Saint Val
All over the capital and across the country, on giant posters, and on the television and radio, on Facebook and in newspapers, PSUGO proclaims that 1,021,144, or more, are now in school, thanks to the Martelly government.
In fact, HGW was not able to confirm the figure and has reason to doubt it, first and foremost because it is only one of many. In an interview with Le Nouvelliste in December 2012, a ministry official said that 1,287,814 students had been sent to school for the current academic year. Where did the extra 250,000 students come from? Also, for the previous year, the MENFP publicly claimed that 837,489 students had been sent to school, but in a document filed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the figure was only 165,000. Another reason to entertain doubts is the fact that PSUGO seems to be without any kind of internal or external supervision.[Note – HGW could not verify the figures in Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s “tweet,” either.]
The origin of the money financing the program also raises questions. According to the government, PSUGO is financed mostly by “the public coffers, taxes imposed on international telephone calls and on money transfers coming from the diaspora to Haiti,” tariffs that many consider illegal. Because the fund created to receive the revenues – the National Fund for Education (Fonds National pour l’Education) – has not yet been approved by the parliament, the money collected remains blocked, according to many reports.
Even if the legality of the tariffs is not considered, mystery surrounds the question of how much money has been collected and spent to date. In May 2012, one official claimed the government had spent 900 million gourdes or about US$22 million. However, in another interview, a ministry official also mentioned that 490,000 of the 837,489 PSUGO students had gone to public school, meaning that 347,489 attended private institutions. If the amount paid was US$90 (or 3,600 gourdes) for each student, then the government spent US$31,274,010 or about 1,314 million gourdes, for the private school students alone – a figure much higher than 900,000 gourdes. [See also Haïti Liberté, 23 janvier 2013].
HGW did not have access to the PSUGO budget, nor could it visit all of the 10,000 schools allegedly inscribed in the program. However, the inquiry discovered many reasons that government officials, as well as the Haitian people, might want to hesitate before crying “victory.”
PSUGO has not kept its promises
Jean Marie Monfils, a teacher and also the director of a school in Léogâne, about 30 kms. west of Port-au-Prince, is furious about PSUGO’s false promises: “They talked about a uniform, about hot lunches, and other things. But from where I am sitting, I can say we haven’t gotten hardly anything. We are the ‘forgotten’ of Léogâne.”
Monfils’ experience is not unique. Hercule André, a man in his fifties who directs a public school in Darbonne, outside Léogâne, lauds the initiative, but he adds, “The only benefit that the students get is that they don’t pay anything. Apart from that, there’s nothing. The students come to school, but they don’t have the books that were promised so that they can follow courses.”
In January, a number of teachers under PSUGO contract in Anse-à-Pitre in southeast Haiti said they had not been paid since October.
“For four months we have worked for free,” professor Jean-Rony Gabriel told AlterPresse. “I am responsible for my family. I have to travel many kilometers to get to my workplace.”
HGW’s investigation in the capital and around Léogâne confirmed the claims. Only two of the 20 schools visited reported having received school supplies and books. Also, as of late November 2012 – ten weeks after classes had started – only one of the 20 schools reported having been paid for the current school year, and 16 out of 20 said the school still had not received the final payment for the previous school year.
“I can’t even tell you if we are part of the program or not,” Monfils admitted, with an air of desperation. “At the moment I am speaking to you, we haven’t gotten anything from the authorities. It’s a really huge problem, because many of the schools that signed up with PSUGO haven’t even gotten what was due them for the 2011-2012 school year. My school has really suffered.”
A representative of the National Confederation of Haitian Teachers (Confédération nationale des éducateurs et éducatrices haïtiens – CNEH), one of the country’s national teachers’ unions, said much the same.
“The fact that the government hasn’t disbursed the money on time has been a big problem for school directors, who haven’t been able to pay their teachers,” reported Edith Délourdes Delouis, teacher and CNEH General Secretary.
“Turn towards quality”
The quality of education is another challenge for PSUGO. For this reason, the ministry announced that the current school year would see a “turn towards quality” with more supervision.
“The ministry is very clearly putting the accent on quality,” MENFP spokesman Miloody Vincent told HGW. “Access, yes, but also better quality, because education only makes sense if it’s a good education… Our new start includes training better professors, assuring children get school books, and supervising the teaching that students are getting.”
“We are really going to focus on supervision,” PSUGO coordinator Elicel Paul added in a separate interview. President Martelly also stressed “quality” when he distributed 100 motorcycles for regional MENFP offices last.
“We have to assure the quality of the education and supervise the services offered to students,” he said on March 15 2012.
However, HGW’s inquiry revealed that the schools participating in PSUGO operate almost entirely without supervision. Of 20 schools visited, 25 percent had never received a single visit and another 24 percent had received only one.
Guillaume Jean, director of the Collège Chrétien in Léogâne confirmed, embarrassed: “We haven’t gotten many visits. They just call to get information.”
Errors and Fraud?
Perhaps because of its large size and even larger budget, the PSUGO program appears to have attracted cheaters.
In July 2012, a regional MENFP official in Port-de-Paix allegedly stole over five million gourdes (over US$119,000). According to media reports, he used a group of young men as fake “school directors,” and wrote them checks of 200,000 and 300,000 gourdes. The official implicated fled to the Dominican Republic.
HGW does not have the means to investigate potential PSUGO fraud at the national level, or even in the capital. By chance, however, journalists discovered a school name recorded on the MENFP list as having received payments, even though it had never functioned.
“Soon – the Justin Lhérisson College!” a small dusty sign announces on the Darbonne road near Léogâne.
“That was a project one of the local mayors set up when he was a candidate,” a neighbor claimed. “Once he got elected, he dropped it.”
The Civil Society Initiative (Initiative Société Civile – ISC) last year did a study of PSUGO, concluding that the program had created number of phantom schools.
“In our study, we discovered that a third or a quarter of the schools being paid by the government hadn’t even been officially approved,” ISC Director Rosny Desroches, a former minister of education, told HGW.
What kind of education, for what kind of children?
The 1987 Haitian Constitution guarantees the right to free, quality education. In spite of the problems of fraud, late salaries, and the non-delivery of school supplies and books, the Martelly government does appear to send some children to school, even if the exact number is unknown. But what kind of schools, for what kind of education, and for which children?
A public school in the PSUGO program receives 250 gourdes for a year per student, and a private school, 3,600 gourdes. These figures – per day – amount to less than one gourde (2 US cents) per day at public schools and 22.5 gourdes (50 US cents) per day at private schools.
By comparison, one year of primary school at the Lycée Alexandre Dumas (one of the best French system schools in the country) costs over 100,000 gourdes (US$2,389) for a year or about 625 gourdes per day: over 600 times the PSUGO public school price per day, and almost 30 times the PSUGO private school price. (This figure does not include health insurance, book rental fees and school supplies.) A medium-level school, like the Collège Le Normalien, costs about 20,000 gourdes (US$475) a year for first grade, about 125 gourdes per day.
CNEH’s professor Delouis explained: “In the private sector, there are many categories of schools. There is the category for the rich people (there are few of these but they are the best), one for the poor, one for those who are extremely poor, and one for those who are just coping… when in fact a school should be a place where all levels of society mix.”
Professor Haram Joseph, director of a school in Darbonne, is despondent.
“In my opinion, if the government continues the way it has started, we will have a lot of school directors with full pockets, but children who don’t know anything,” he said, sadly.
Students at a public school in Croix-des-Bouquets. Photo: HGW/Marc Schindler Saint Val
At another school with both PSUGO money and foreign assistance, it’s almost noon. Under a blazing sun, scores of students focus on their work. The Charlotin Marcadieu national school was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and today functions in 14 tents arranged in three rows. Gravel crunches under students’ feet. Before heading into his “classroom,” one of the teachers says, bitterly: “After 10 in the morning, these tent-rooms are like furnaces.”