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Whoever ends up running Pakistan could eventually face enough problems to regret the honor. The winners in last week's elections are trying to form a government for a country with huge strategic importance and many long-term problems. That includes the problem we'll examine this morning. Pakistan's public school system is collapsing.

The elites have largely abandoned those schools, sending their kids to private school instead. If you think the public school failure in Pakistan does not affect you, consider one thing that happens to the kids left behind. They can become recruits for extremist groups.

NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

BILAL QURESHI: Algebra is the study of unknowns - what's missing, a mathematical detective story. And today's algebra lesson in Mrs. Shabnam Kawal's class at a Rawalpindi public school is a case in point.

Ms. SHABNAM KAWAL (Teacher, Rawalpindi Public School): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group of Children: (Foreign language spoken)

QURESHI: But there's a lot more missing in this equation than the value of X. The school building, tucked behind a rowdy market of fruit vendors and donkey carts, has been without electricity and water for months. Its fading walls rise around a dirt courtyard that doubles as the playground.

Here in Mrs. Kawal's algebra class, 70 girls are sitting shoulder to shoulder in a room designed for 25. And on this frigid winter day, the concrete walls make it colder inside than it is outside. Mrs. Kawal says she's seen harder days.

Ms. KAWAL: (Through translator) It's really hard. I've even taught 114 girls in this room. I've complained to everyone. I've told the administration. What more can I do?

QURESHI: This is the environment in which most of Pakistan's children are learning - or not learning. Because 60 percent of Pakistan's population is under 18, this generation will shape the future. And next to Mrs. Kawal's classroom, a group of teachers say they are overwhelmed.

Mr. MOHAMMAD JEHANGIR (Teacher, Rawalpindi): (Foreign language spoken)

QURESHI: Mohammad Jehangir teaches at a neighboring school. He says almost one-third of his students will drop out before fifth grade. Many of their parents put them to work because they see no future through education.

Teacher Nustrat Seldana(ph) interrupts with an explanation.

Ms. NUSTRAT SELDANA (Teacher, Rawalpindi): (Through translator) If the teachers were properly trained and they actually thought about their students, there is no way these children would drop out of school. For example, if a student likes to draw we shouldn't force him to read from a book.

QURESHI: Not every kid who likes to draw is good at art, nor is every kid who likes music about to cut a hit record. But the difference is that at Pakistan's growing roster of tony private schools, the children at least have the chance to try.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: Listen to these kids at the Beacon House School in Lahore. They want to be in a rock and roll band.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: So they're not quite Nirvana, but still, the Beacon House School is one of Pakistan's premier schools and an example of one the country's fastest growing industries - private education. It is located in Lahore's posh defense neighborhood.

Once you get through the gates and past the armed security guards, you'd forget you were in Pakistan. It's an impressive campus with open halls and neat rows of royal palms. Students in designer blue blazers are hanging out, speaking English, their accents derived from trips abroad and a steady diet of American TV.

As Principal Naveen But(ph) explains, they're learning, too.

Ms. NAVEEN BUT (Principal, Beacon House School): And on the top floor we have the library, which is the central library. And we've bought more than 25 to 30,000 books, I think.

QURESHI: Not all private schools are like this, though. They can range from one-room schoolhouses in villages to international schools in big cities. Three out of 10 Pakistani students now attend private schools, and the numbers are growing.

Beacon House began as one school 33 years ago. Today, it has 130 branches across the country. Its students are expected to become leaders, raised to be confident.

Mr. HASHIM MUSTASIN (Student, Beacon House School, Pakistan): I think I'm going to apply to Columbia and I'll get in for sure, because I'm a straight A student and I'm - well, let's just not boast about myself anymore.

QURESHI: Who knows if Hashim Mustasin will make it to Columbia, but his confidence is impressive and worth every penny his parents are paying Beacon House. The tuition for one student is double the monthly income for the average Pakistani, but parents pay the fees because the best jobs in Pakistan still go to those who attend English-language private schools. Children like Mona Atif's eight-year-old daughter.

Ms. MONA ATIF(ph): Yes, sweetie?

Unidentified Child: Do you have a pencil? A marker - do you have a marker?

Ms. ATIF: Well, which one do you want? Red, purple?

Unidentified Child: The black.

Ms. ATIF: I would not send my children to a government school, even if I know that it has a good status. It's like a taboo. You know, speaking Urdu or sending your children to an Urdu medium school. We are very English-conscious people, you know.

QURESHI: And Atif says that's just how it is.

Ms. ATIF: Because when you grow up, if you don't have proper contacts or proper status, then you are a nobody here. You can't get a good job. You can't do anything. So you have to make those contacts. And for that, you have to have that mentality.

QURESHI: And that's an attitude that doesn't include an understanding of how most Pakistanis live.

Ms. ATIF: We don't even know what kind of lives they live. We don't want to be associated to them at all. We don't want to know.

QURESHI: But that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality will not make the majority of Pakistan disappear. What becomes of that majority holds the key to Pakistan's future. And as they find it harder to get good jobs, cover basic expenses, these young people are getting frustrated, and extremist organizations prey on that resentment. Mehnaz Aziz heads an NGO focused on improving education.

Ms. MEHNAZ AZIZ (Founder, Pakistani Education NGO): Our elite children are linked to the global reality, and the extremists are children who were never given the passage to that global link, you know, because we have not made that change in the classrooms.

QURESHI: The natural question would be why has Pakistan's government failed to fix its schools?

Mr. JAVED ASHRAF QAZI (Former Federal Minister for Education, Pakistan): The education bureaucracy is extremely corrupt and extremely useless.

QURESHI: Javed Ashraf Qazi was himself the federal minister for education in President Musharraf's last government. He blames politicians for treating education like a political football.

Mr. QAZI: Within my ministry, I could say not more than three to four officers were worth the job that they were holding. Some are farmers. Most of them are landlords.

QURESHI: But the reason why Pakistan's politicians have neglected public education could be because they have no contact with public schools.

Khurshid Kasuri is the head of the Beacon House system.

Mr. KHURSHID KASURI (Head of the Beacon House School): Almost everybody in government who, you know - and I'm not talking of ministers. I'm talking of, you know, even at much lower levels. All of their children go to private schools.

QURESHI: In the run-up to last week's election, 16 of the country's political parties came together to pledge their support for public education.

Unidentified Man: Education for all, and also all for education. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

QURESHI: But the country's new coalition government will have to do more than applaud if they hope to improve Pakistan's schools.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

QURESHI: Back at Rawalpindi public school, teacher Mohammad Jehangir is about to call it a day. His students are finally heading home. They walk through the open gates. There are no guards and no school buses waiting to pick them up, just a dirt path and three cows grazing. Mohammad Jehangir has not given up hope.

Mr. JEHANGIR: (Through translator) These are my schools, and these are Pakistan's schools. I'm here today because of these schools. I've studied in these same classrooms sitting on a dirty floor, and I want us to improve these classrooms.

QURESHI: Committed students and teachers like Jehangir are only one side of the equation. They've done their part and are still waiting for the other side -the government - to do its part.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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