SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — Orison Makhaluza leans back on the cracked leather sofa and watches his young grandnieces scurry through the small cement house. They look tiny in their gray school jumpers and knee socks, which they are still wearing, even though school ended hours ago.
Last month, Mr. Makhaluza wasn't sure if the girls would ever wear the uniforms. He wasn't sure if they would go to school at all.
The problem, he explains, was school fees. His sister, the girls' grandmother, started taking care of the four children, ages 5 to 11, when their mother died last year. But she couldn't afford to pay the school fees - $42 per student - required by the girls' primary school. So the school told the children they could not attend classes.
"Education, it's the key of the future," says Makhaluza, who has been unemployed for five years and lives at his sister's house. "But our kids, they are told they cannot go to school."
Although South African law says that no student should be denied an education and that impoverished students should be exempt from paying fees, children's advocates say that schools often do not understand or follow these regulations.
The government pays for teachers' salaries and buildings, but schools need extra money to pay for basics such as water, electricity, and pencils. School officials and education-rights advocates say schools have incentive to take harsh measures, such as keeping a child out of the classroom, to convince parents to pay. Parents, many of whom are uneducated, often don't understand the law well enough to challenge schools.
In Makhaluza's case, a grass-roots group called the Education Rights Project talked to the school about his grandnieces, and the girls were admitted. The school said there had been a misunderstanding.
Across Africa and in other developing regions, organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank, along with children's rights groups, are encouraging countries to provide free education. They worry that school fees are keeping hundreds of thousands of children - particularly girls - from school.
Other expenses, such as the cost of books, transportation, and uniforms, can also keep schools out of reach for poor families, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day.
These organizations point to countries like Kenya, where President Mwai Kibaki, fulfilling a campaign promise, declared in 2003 that all primary schools would be free of fees. In just a few months, primary school enrollment increased from about 6 million to 7.2 million. Although the move has put unprecedented strains on Kenya's education system - the government had not budgeted for the huge increase in students - international observers say it proves that fees have kept poor children out of the classroom.
Last year, the United Nations announced that universal free primary education was one of its top priorities. But many countries say they simply cannot afford to lift school fees, adding that parents have a responsibility to contribute to their children's education.
About 80 percent of the countries in East Asia and the Pacific have mandatory fees, according to a 2001 World Bank study, as do many Middle Eastern and North African countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.
This year, the Botswana government reintroduced school fees after 20 years of free education, saying it could no longer afford to subsidize schools.
Besides Kenya, a handful of countries in eastern and southern Africa have done away with primary school fees, including Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda. The efforts are bolstered in part by populist politics and in part by money donated from wealthy countries such as the United States. Yet South Africa, the richest nation in the region, still allows schools to charge.
Although South African law says that the government must fund all public schools, the education department says that there is also "a responsibility on all public school governing bodies to do their utmost to improve the quality of education in their schools by raising additional resources to supplement those which the state provides."
"All parents," it says, "are thereby encouraged to increase their own direct financial and other contributions."
Parents are supposed to vote on the fee level for their children's school. While no school is required to charge fees, in practice, many would go without electricity and water if they did not raise extra funds.
But school officials say they are getting better at preventing poor children from slipping through the cracks.
Regarding fees, the balance of power has shifted to parents, says Rej Brijraj, chief executive officer of the South African Council for Educators, a statutory body charged with maintaining professional standards.
The onus is now on schools to prove that parents can pay, rather than parents having to prove to school boards that they cannot afford fees.
Last year, the South African Parliament passed the Education Laws Amendment Bill, which makes a certain percentage of South Africa's approximately 28,000 schools "fee free." That bill, however, has not yet been signed into law.
"By and large, I must say that school governing bodies have shown great responsibility in setting school fees, and the state has been very vigilant to make sure that learners are not disadvantaged," Mr. Brijraj says.
Recently there have been a number of grass-roots efforts designed to educate both schools and parents about the law and children's rights.
But Makhaluza still has concerns. Children who don't pay or can't conform to school rules can face ridicule. His own son was called a "hooligan" by a teacher because he was not wearing a school uniform - a luxury that Makhaluza said he could not afford.
Sharon September, education project coordinator at South Africa's Alliance for Children's Access to Social Security, says she still hears of schools retaliating against families who cannot pay.
"We hear stories where students are refused entry to school," she says. "Or where children attend, and don't get their report at the end of the year because they didn't pay. There have been cases where mothers have been told to clean the toilets to make up for the fact they can't pay."
Lerato Mokgadi, a 22-year-old 12th-grader, says her high school in the Soweto township, just outside Johannesburg, refused to release her end-of-year report because her mother had not paid fees.
"I never paid the school fees because I wasn't working," says her mother, Maria Mokgadi.
The younger Mokgadi's report was crucial. She knew that she had not passed the countrywide exam necessary for university entrance. But without her report, she didn't know which subject she had failed, so she could not register for additional classes. A local representative of the Education Rights Project spoke with the school on Mokgadi's behalf, and returned with the report card.
"If this were an equal society, school fees would be fine," Ms. September says. "Nobody has a problem contributing. But if fees serve as an exclusionary measure, because every child has a right to an education, it should be altered."