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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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I'm Audie Cornish.

Parents in the U.S. complain about bad public schools, top-heavy bureaucracies and too many standardized tests. Those problems would be a luxury in Kenya. Kenya is one of four East African countries struggling to meet a U.N. Millennium Development Goal. It calls for universal primary education by 2015. NPR's John Burnett has this story on the frustrations of a poor country trying to educate all of its young people.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Under Kenya's faltering experiment with free education, all young people are supposed to be here at school, in class instead of home hauling water or tending sheep.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) We are happy. We are happy together. We are happy. We are happy together.

BURNETT: Consider the way it was before. Agnes Munuhe is a 50-year-old teachers' adviser, the 11th of 13 children of a subsistence farmer and his three wives in central Kenya.

AGNES MUNUHE: I come from a very poor family, a very poor family, such that I was always going home for school fees.

BURNETT: Because her parents could not always afford those school fees, Agnes didn't learn to read and write until she was 16 years old, and she finally finished high school at 25. Then in 2003, Kenya President Mwai Kibaki - honoring a political promise and following a trend sweeping East Africa - eliminated fees for primary schools and lowered them for secondary schools. The result was dramatic. More than a million kids streamed into the crumbling classrooms, including many girls whose families had held them back in this conservative society. These bright-eyed girls in green sweaters and bobby socks recite their lessons at Kabiru-ini Girls Boarding School in Central Province.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: But Kenya's tottering school system could not handle the flood of new students when the doors were opened to everyone nine years ago, and the situation has not improved today. So Kenya needs 80,000...

MUNUHE: Thousand.

BURNETT: ...additional teachers.

MUNUHE: Teachers, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MUNUHE: It's that serious.

BURNETT: What this means is you can find one teacher teaching 60 students. In some classes, five students share one textbook. And as for education being free, primary schools regularly ask parents for fees, and last Monday, the Kabiru-ini School had to send home 100 girls to ask their parents for money for things like teacher salaries, exams, uniforms and new buildings. Margaret Kamau(ph) is the deputy principal.

MARGARET KAMAU: The records are almost half of the school will be out to collect money. It's a challenge.

BURNETT: A study published by Sussex University in 2007 found that Kenya's free schools were a matter of political expediency. They were not well-planned or funded, and as a result, there have actually been more dropouts and a falling quality of education.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 10.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 10.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 11.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 11.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Number 12.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Number 12.

BURNETT: Preschool students learn their numbers at Mahiga Hope High School in Nyere County. Principal Jane Wainaina says the government contributes, in theory, $120 per student, but the subsidies arrive irregularly, and they're still not enough. She, too, must send some students home to collect money from their parents. Sadly, some never return to school.

JANE WAINAINA: It is not free as such. The government subsidize, but they use the word free, but it is not free.

BURNETT: Mahiga Hope is more fortunate than most rural Kenya high schools. It has a two-story stone classroom building, a basketball court, computer and science labs and a library.

WAINAINA: Go to other schools, they literally have nothing. The classrooms are wooden. The floors are not done. It's just mud all over. So let me say Mahiga Hope High School, we have been extremely lucky to have the Nobelity Project with us.

BURNETT: The Nobelity Project is a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that builds classrooms, labs and water systems for schools in the developing world. Mahiga Hope High School is an example of how the Kenya school system - as it works toward universal free education by 2015 - depends on private donors.

But even with all these problems, school administrators, like principal Wainaina, would not turn the clock back. They worry whether Kenya's next president - to be elected in 2013 - will make a commitment to continue the struggle for a truly free education for all. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

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