One out of every two Haitians is illiterate. Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, has made free public education one of his top priorities.
On the first day of school in Haiti, adding to the normal chaos, the president was handing out free backpacks.
“I’m now the superstar of the school,” a boy who received one of the coveted backpacks said proudly.
President Martelly says his recent taxes on international calls and wire transfers have changed the public schools of Haiti.
“That money has enabled us to provide free schools for the people,” explained the president.
But at a public school in Tabarre, a poor neighborhood outside of Port au Prince, the moms told a different story. They said it’s far from free.
The mothers said they paid to send their children to school.
They said they paid the equivalent of $27 or $16. To back up their claims, they showed receipts.
“Somedays I am not even able to sell the bread that I have and I have to let my kids go hungry so I can have enough money to send them to school,” one mother, who said she sells bread on the street lamented.
When a reporter returned one week later, it’s bedlam. Children are kept outside the school because their parents have not paid a new fee to purchase emblems for uniforms.
“We asked for children to have an emblem on their clothing to differentiate them from students of other schools,” explained Jean Francois Lucien, the director of the school. “So the parents are being stubborn and they are refusing to put the emblem on their children’s clothing.”
The fee is less than $1.50 U.S. But it’s still a hardship for the average Haitian who makes $2 a day.
“A lot of times, you can’t sell anything,” another mother complained. “You walk and you walk before you can finally make 100 gourdes ($2.48).”
And, what about the hundreds of dollars paid to enroll children here?
“The minister asked us to stop charging parents to register their children, so we stopped and we didn’t collect any money after that,” school director Lucien responded.
But one woman reported that she had been told that her children had to leave because she didn’t have an extra $6 for enrollment.
“They told me no, when you have the complete amount, come back,” she said.
Lucien says the school relies on the money from parents.
“As long as the government accepts to pay for what the parents were paying previously, we can operate the school, but the school can’t operate without any money,” he said.
President Martelly says his administration will work with the school to make sure the money is refunded.
The president used to be known as “Sweet Micky,” a successful singer. Martelly says he will return to the stage in December to raise $10 million for education.
If current trends continue, only 5 percent of the children will finish high school.