Plight of education in Russia: few pencils, donated books

Teachers, parents try to maintain standards as funding dries up infinancial crisis.

Teacher Lubov Panova holds up a toy yellow-paper balalaika that she made for her students, soundlessly strumming its imaginary strings. There is no audience. The classroom has been emptied by a strike.

"Welcome to our virtual orchestra," she says, with a smile that is a little forced.

Ms. Panova and her colleagues painted alphabet blocks and drew paper decorations for the classroom. Parents donated the white frilly curtains, lab chemicals, and books and pitched in to paint the walls.

School No. 2, 60 miles northwest of Moscow, is like many in Russia. There is no glass to replace broken windows. Teachers can go unpaid for months.

And as in many communities across Russia, parents and teachers have united to keep the torch of knowledge alive, with no help from government authorities who say their coffers are empty.

"We work for free. And parents provide the rest - textbooks, labor, equipment, wood, plaster," says teacher Nina Bukharova. "The state doesn't do anything."

The root of the problem, says Education Minister Vladimir Filippov, is that resources have dwindled since the breakup of the Soviet Union. "Since 1991, we have seen a radical change," he told the Monitor.

Salary delays and a lack of materials have troubled Russia for years. But the situation has reached a crisis since the ruble's August 1998 collapse. Currently the wage and social benefits debt owed to Russia's 1.7 million teachers is around 15 billion rubles - or $652,000.

WHILE some teachers regularly receive a nominal portion of their monthly salaries (worth about $26), others have not seen a kopeck for up to a year. Still others are paid via barter, with such diverse items as hay, suits, women's underwear, refrigerators, and cow manure.

Teachers normally accept whatever they are offered, but one group drew the line at coffins. "They said they weren't prepared to accept coffins as long as they were alive," says Vladimir Yakovlev, president of the Education and Science Employees' Union.

For Tatiana Sinotova, who has not received any form of wage in three months, teaching the Rus-sian language is a labor of love. "We show up for work for the pupils' sake," she explains.

But her patience has a limit. Two weeks ago she joined nationwide strikes by 400,000 teachers demanding wage arrears. Nearly half a million more walked picket lines.

The consequences of the economic deprivation are eroding the reputation of Russia's once famed sites of learning. Although much schooling was authoritarian under the former Soviet regime, literacy levels were among the highest in the world.

But the ideological freedom that came with the Soviet demise was accompanied by deteriorating standards. Schools could not afford modern equipment such as computers or provide free textbooks or even heating.

"Adoption of a new social model could have been an opportunity ... to build on the best of the old education system while discarding the worst. Instead, many children today are receiving an education that is inferior to that their parents received," says a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund.

Union leader Yakovlev blames much of the financial hardship on corrupt local officials. "There is no doubt that some local authorities are using the August crisis as an excuse to withhold payments," he says.

He lauded the government of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, which has defied the International Monetary Fund's call for budget restraint by envisaging 79 percent more spending on education this year.

For parents who worry about their children's futures, improving school resources is of utmost urgency.

"Now we can help the school. But will we be able to within a year?" asks Irina Fetiskina, whose daughter studies at School No. 2.

She then articulates one of her greatest concerns: "What if the teachers have enough and start to drop out?"

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