from Africa in Transition

An Expensive Lesson In Education

September 17, 2014

Blog Post

This is a guest post by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, a journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

With an already shaky economy, Zimbabwe’s new education minister Lazarus Dokora’s decision to make a series of drastic “reforms” is shortsighted and potentially destabilizing. Without a strong education system, the country may lack cohesion and the tools to propel economic growth, both of which Zimbabwe sorely needs now.

Zimbabwe’s education system was once the most developed in Africa, with an adult literacy rate near 90 percent, but today the system is in shambles. The nation’s hyperinflationary era, which came to a head in 2008, when a hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollars bought three eggs, forced businesses and schools to close. Now Dokora’s pecuniary decrees are further damaging the fragile system. He wants to jail poor parents who fail to pay school fees and cut teacher wages and incentives, already hovering near subsistence.

Just a decade earlier, Zimbabwe’s schooling was nearly universal, with over half the population completing secondary education. But, Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis devastated education. Now teacher salaries are low, working conditions poor and quality has suffered, a reality starkly reflected in June’s double-digit drop in student pass rates for Ordinary ‘O’ Level school examinations to 38 percent from last year.

School materials are in short supply. Textbooks, financed by taxing parents, have dropped to a record low. UNICEF estimates that there are fifteen children for each textbook in primary schools. Many secondary schools have no math textbooks.

Education Minister Dokora, who came to power after last year’s widely disputed elections, wants to improve the fragile system but his “solutions” may only unsettle it. Dokora wants to raise money from deadbeat parents. He told journalists recently: “On the issue of defaulting parents...schools must take recourse through presenting a list of parents owing money in levies to traditional leaders, who should then summon the parents to court…there shall be no exceptions. Levies must be paid.”

But how will poor parents pay? The United Nations estimates unemployment at 70 percent. The economy is half the size it was in 2000, and economic growth is projected to slow to 3 percent after averaging 10 percent between 2009 and 2012.

Dokora’s plan for reducing expenses is equally risky: teachers are to lose three months of wages, hard to imagine given that salaries average $500 a month and an average family requires $560 a month for basic commodities. Dokora’s decree bans teachers from giving extra lessons when school is out, refuses holiday and vacation pay, and stops incentive payments that encourage teachers to stay in the profession. His reasoning: A need to cushion hard-pressed parents.

The teacher’s union says the minister is out to destroy education, but perhaps the real question is whether Dokora’s policies may destroy the peace? Education is a security issue. By putting parents and teachers in a fix, Dokora risks forcing families to either withdraw their children from school or lose their meager property, possessions, or their liberty. Faced with such stark choices, most will simply take their children out of school, a bad outcome for Zimbabwe’s future peace and prosperity.