BANGKOK — FOR many developing countries, Thailand's official 86 percent literacy rate is the stuff of dreams.
But with success have come new dilemmas in sustaining literacy, boosting education levels, and reaching stubborn pockets of the unschooled, Thai educators and officials say.
"We have more or less achieved very basic literacy," says Kasama Varavarn, a senior government policymaker who oversees nonformal programs to broaden literacy.
"But we still face challenges in maintaining and upgrading literacy," she says.
Thailand's literacy level, the highest among the widely educated nations of Southeast Asia, was built with the help of a common language and the traditional and powerful role of Buddhist temples in educating young boys.
With the expansion of the century-old compulsory primary education system and out-of-school literacy campaigns, Thailand has cut illiteracy from almost 70 percent in 1938, when the first national census was conducted, to less than 15 percent now, Thai experts say.
The widespread ability of Thais to read and write has helped accelerate economic development and boost the country's fast-growing economy closer to the newly industrialized status of Singapore, South Korea, and other Asian neighbors.
But Thailand can not afford to rest on its laurels, policymakers and academics say. The country faces an uphill struggle to maintain its education track record as an estimated 11 percent of literate Thais revert back when reading and writing skills become rusty through lack of use.
Indeed, because of the erosion of literacy, the actual number of Thais who can read and write is closer to 80 percent, estimates Chalongphob Sussangkarn, an education specialist at the Thailand Development Research Institute, a private think tank in Bangkok.
The government is struggling to stem the worrying trend by expanding the network of libraries and village reading centers and promoting the availability of Thai language newspapers.
"We must be aware of the needs of the neo-illiterate," says Dr. Kasama. "Unlike riding a bicycle, which once you ride it you can ride forever, literacy is something that can go back and forth if you don't use it."
Thailand's increasingly sophisticated and modern economy also is placing heavier demands on the education system, policymakers say. Yet Thailand confronts a high dropout rate at the elementary level and a low enrollment rate in secondary school, analysts say.
A recent study by the Thailand Development Research Institute reported that half of Thai children who finish primary education do not go on to high school, the poorest performance among the noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia.
Three-quarters of the country's work force at the turn of the century will be made up of those completing only primary education or less, the report says.
This minimal level of education is ominous for Thailand's ability to sustain the double-digit economic growth of recent years and keep pace with the country's economic rivals elsewhere in the region, analysts say.
"We have made very good progress in basic education over the last 20 years," says Dr. Chalongphob. "But almost 20 percent of the people who enter Grade 1 don't come out at Grade 6. We have to start using some of the resources at the primary level in secondary education."
One disturbing education trend in Thailand, government officials say, is the growing incidence of illiteracy among the urban poor, particularly in Bangkok where 10 percent of the country's 55 million people live.
Last fall, in a critique of Thailand's rapid-fire development, which has drawn millions of people from the countryside to the city, a group of Thai and international activists estimated that one-quarter of the capital's residents are slum-dwellers.
According to government statistics, about one-fourth of more than a half-million construction workers in Thai cities are children. However, only one-third of youngsters receive an education as many are lured into the growing labor market.
"We worry that the problem might be deepening in urban areas," says Kasama. "There are a lot of jobs which attract children to leave school. Their names may be in the school register, but their bodies are not in the schools."
Wallop Tangkhananurak, a 37-year-old educator, is committed to educating Bangkok's street children who fall through the cracks of the city's booming growth. Through his Moolanithi Sangsan Dek or Foundation for the Better Life of Children, he rescues vagabond children from the infamous red-light districts and the streets, providing them with an education and even shelter (see related story).
"I am concerned about the children who cannot afford to go to primary school or who graduate from primary school and cannot read and write," says Mr. Wallop.
He has established a network of four shelters where he houses 225 children brought to him by Buddhist monks, police, social workers, parents, and hospitals. He then places the children in government-run schools or adult education classes.
Many of Bangkok's construction workers now live in 20 established camps on the outskirts of the city. That has made it easier to provide education to the children, Wallop says.
Still, he finds the problem of street children in Bangkok worsening as working parents have less and less time for the children, the gap between the rich and poor widens, and the growth of tourism has created a booming market for child prostitution, drug dealing, and other social problems.
"The problem of children cannot disappear in Thailand," he says. "As the country becomes richer the problem of children grows."