'Free' education may not be so free to the poorest

On the back paths and dusty roads of Asia, little schoolhouses are no longer a rare sight. They are often filled with young children in uniforms, reciting lessons and singing national anthems. Foreign aid programs are now focusing on vocational education, training technicians for new industries.

But in many schoolhouses, it is difficult to find pupils over 10 years old. Dropout rates remain high in less developed Asian countries.

In India, for instance, almost 20 percent of all youngsters never even enroll , and 63 percent leave by the fifth grade. In Indonesia, dropout rates are over 50 percent.

Why? Free primary education, it seems, is not so free.

''The poorest peasants do not have any money to pay for a child's school lunches, uniforms, books, pencils, and other expenses,'' says John Malcolm Dowling Jr., economist at the Asian Development Bank.

''For the poorest people in many countries, these expenses can take 20 percent to 30 percent of a family's income. And loss of a child's help on a farm can also make the difference for a poor village family,'' he says.

And if hard times hit a family, such as a bad harvest or shortage of help at a food market, schooling is the first thing that goes, says Mr. Dowling.

The amount of a person's income, most experts now agree, is directly related to the degree of education. With just a little more money to pay villagers for the daily costs of primary education, says Mr. Dowling, the return to society would be immense.

The cost of one university education could educate 20 primary students, he calculates. ''Subsidies for university education help the rich in developing countries. Why not subsidize the poor?'' he says.

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