An Afghan lesson in supply and demand

He’s a young man in an ill-fitting suit standing in the principal’s office beneath pictures of Afghan sages and Wile E. Coyote. There’s no principal, but he says he’ll hire one as soon as he finds investors. He could use a few more chairs and pencils too; just drop them off on the other side of the razor wire.

“There’s a need for private schools, and I’m doing this to benefit me and my countrymen,” said Abdul Azim Rawi Almajid, owner of a new school named after himself. “They’re not just for the rich anymore. Even the guy pulling a cart in the streets wants his children in a private school so they can have a better life.”

The checklist of this nation’s problems seems as endless as its opportunists and dreamers. Schemes and good, if misguided, intentions whisper of possibilities. One of the most enticing is the market for private schools: Underfunded public institutions cannot meet the expectations of the country’s emerging moneyed class or returning expatriates seeking the same quality of education their children received abroad.

Almajid opened his school as soon as the books arrived and the paint dried. He lacks much. Two of his three teachers have only high school diplomas; his computer room is a work in progress, but there is a Barbie in pre-kindergarten. Almajid, a computer repairman, never attended college, but he assures a visitor that the principal he hires — when the investors come through — will have impressive credentials.

“There have been many problems with fraud and poor teaching standards,” said Najeeba Nooristani, who oversees private schools for the Ministry of Education. “We are working hard to bring them under the rules of the ministry. My office is only 5 months old. We’ve been investigating, and the number of opportunists is declining.

“Private schools are important right now. They’re taking pressure off public schools and lifting a big weight off the state.”

More than 280 private schools have opened across the country in the last three years, most of them in Kabul. They highlight the aspirations of a nation wanting to move beyond the repressive years of the Taliban, but they mirror how ill-equipped the government is to provide stability and basic services.

Private schools also present a danger: In rebuilding the country, a two-class system of education may emerge that would leave students from poor homes behind, especially in the provinces where militants recruit. Some private schools have been criticized for emphasizing English and other languages over Dari and Pashto and for failing to teach the country’s history and culture.

The hallways in the Zarghona public school in downtown Kabul are damp and frigid; the roof leaks, and the average class size is 60 students, many of whom don’t have chairs. Teachers earn about $90 a month. In the days of the Taliban, the building was a training center for militants, but now principal Safia Jan, sitting in a black coat near a wood-burning stove, rules supreme.

About 70% of her 7,500 students live in poverty. Textbooks are dated, silent on topics as diverse as recent scientific advances to and the events that have traumatized the country. The other day, she turned away a girl who wanted to enroll, telling her there were not enough desks.

Jan knows the burdens facing her school and students, but she said public education was improving.

“When we came here after the Taliban left, there was one chair. We still don’t have much, but little by little we’re getting better,” she said. “If the fighting stopped and our neighboring countries allowed the government to work, within five years there’d be a good education system in Afghanistan.”

Look across Zarghona’s playground and down the street to a traffic circle crowded with signs and billboards for private schools. They seem as ubiquitous as the wedding halls rising in the grit and dust of a city dotted by roadblocks and busy with soldiers. Jan said such schools were facades, as flimsy as their superhero logos stenciled on walls.

“They’re just businesses. They’re cheating the students. Their teachers aren’t qualified,” she said. “They’re getting books from Pakistan, so their students know a lot about Pakistan history but not much about Afghanistan. We’ve had parents bring their children back here after enrolling them in these private schools.”

But many of these schools have small classes, desks and chairs for everyone, computers, libraries, new books and teachers with university degrees. Housed in villas or newly renovated buildings, they seek a Western-style ambience aspired to by parents willing to sacrifice so their children can escape a legacy of conflict.

The hallway carpet in the Azmoon Private High School is vacuumed between classes. The school, which has 300 students in grades one through 12, was founded last year by Bezhan Rezayi and his father, a respected academic and retired public school teacher. Teachers earn as much as $150 a month, and tuition ranges from $110 to $220. Classes are taught in English and Afghan Dari.

“There is a gap in education right now,” Rezayi said. “If we compare, an eighth-grade student in a government school is at the level of a fifth-grade student here. So either government schools have to improve or the state should privatize them. I know there are private schools out there only in it for the money, but they have no long-range plans, and they are failing right now.”

He slipped into a fourth-grade class of 16 students studying anatomy. He said that raising money was difficult and that he had turned away funding offers from several countries that wanted to influence religious and cultural studies.

“I don’t want to name those nations,” he said, “but they informed us that, ‘We’ll support you if you teach history this way and hang these pictures on the walls.’ But they were not our history, not our pictures. I don’t want international politics meddling in our education system.”

At Almajid’s private school, rain fell through the razor wire and made mud in the yard. He gave a tour, nervously opening doors to empty, half-finished classrooms. He seemed to know the school was not ready to open, but he said he and his country were trying to move ahead; the time was now to enrich himself and educate a new generation.

“I’m looking for a financial backer,” Almajid said, “someone to help us with materials and books. What you see here is what I’ve developed. Do you know anyone who might be a donor? We will even change the name of a school if a donor requested it.”