Education A Top Issue For Voters In Haiti

April 4, 2011

Carrie Kahn

Thony Belizaire
Haiti's 2010 earthquake destroyed more than 80 percent of schools in and around Port-au-Prince.

Preliminary results for Haiti's long-fought presidential race were expected Monday, and with last month's relatively calm second round of voting, many Haitians have turned their attention to pressing politicians for change.

But with unemployment hovering around 80 percent and nearly one million people still homeless after the 2010 earthquake, it may be surprising to hear that a top priority for many Haitian voters is actually education.

An Unlikely Issue

Gil Lujean, 26, waited three hours in the scorching sun to cast his vote for candidate Michel Martelly. Lujean, who is unemployed, says he voted for Martelly because he promised free education to all of Haiti's children.

In fact, Martelly, a 50-year-old popular Haitian singer, made free education a key part of his campaign, as did his opponent, 70-year-old university administrator Mirlande Manigat.

Much of Manigat's support came from Haiti's students, but that's not exactly a huge constituency — only half of all children in Haiti manage to get an education.

The State Of Education In Haiti

On a dusty street in Port-au-Prince, 12-year-old Similian Nixon and his 13-year-old brother, Achele Jackson, spend their days playing soccer. Neither goes to school. They say they'd like to go to school, but they can't because there is no money for it.

Meanwhile, at a private Catholic school in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville, 70 kids, all in bright blue uniforms, are studying French. Nearly 80 percent of Haiti's schools are private. The school's principal, priest Bonit Francois, says educating children in Haiti is very difficult right now — many of his school's parents owe more than a year of back tuition.

Even before the earthquake, there weren't enough schools or qualified teachers. According to the government, 4,000 schools were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and as many as 1,300 teachers died.

Private schools are clearly trying to fill the gap, but with little government oversight, the quality of education can vary greatly between the better-off religious schools to neighborhood shops like the one run by Marie Wesline Faucher.

"On day I had a dream," Faucher says. "In my dream I saw a bus carrying a lot of school children."

She says that in her dream, the bus stopped in front of her house and let the kids out, so she opened a school.

With 65 students and four teachers, Faucher says she struggles to keep the doors open. The only time the government ever helped out, she says, was last year after the earthquake when she received money to pay out a month of her teacher's salaries. But she says no one ever inspects the school.

The Five-Year Plan

The Haitian government has drafted a five-year plan to revamp the system. With funding from donors like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Inter-American Development Bank, the goal is to build 150 new schools, train 5,000 teachers and give all school kids the first nine years of education free.

Louis Herns Marcelin, an anthropologist at the University of Miami and head of a higher education consortium in Haiti, says that such lofty objectives can sometimes make it feel like the politicians are living in outer space.

"Unless we are living [on] planet Mars, I don't see how we are going to get to the objectives that they fixed," Marcelin says. "The objectives themselves are not well grounded."

He says he's glad education is getting such high-profile treatment, but he doubts the government's objectives can be met in five years.

But Francois, of the suburban private Catholic school, says he wants to believe in the candidates. After all, he says, they really have no choice but to help the children — they are Haiti's future. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.