Liberia: Parents Worry over Inability to Enrol Children in School as Fees Soar

Many female marketers, who sell at the Du Port Road Market in Paynesville City, are worried about paying their kids school fees new academic year draws near

Paynesville – About a hundred wooden tables are spread across the wet and muddy floor inside a gloomy makeshift market building. Next to one of the tables, sits Rebecca Toe, who is concealing in her heart and mind, the burden of her three children’s education.

Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]

The heavy downpour of rain has just waned; so Rebecca and her eldest daughter are reassembling recycled-rubber bottles filled with red palm oil on their table. They are hopeful of luring some customers before dusk.

The rainy season in Liberia is not making life any less stressful for these vendors – mostly women – here at the Du-Port Road market in Paynesville city.

Here, many mothers are echoing the challenge of paying their kids’ school fees amid concerns of the harshness of Liberia’s economic woes.

Rebecca is racing against time to ensure that her children – a kindergartener, fifth and ninth graders – enroll before classes start next week.

The private school the kids are expected to attend has increased its tuition. She is clueless about the new fees and said the slow pace of business is compounding the situation.

By this time last year, Rebecca’s kids were all set and ready for school.

“I used to pay their school fees on time but, because everything hard these days and money business is rough, I can’t even make it,” she said, dividing her attention to bait an incoming customer.

When she was done serving the buyer, she added with a smirk face: “This school fees problem is my worry now and maybe my children will not go to school this year.”

A couple of meters away from Rebecca’s stall, stood Fata Kollie, a single mother of two children – ninth and first graders. She’s also carrying the headache of school fees as she tries to keep her vegetables fresh, sprinkling droplets of rainwater on them.

Days ago, she cast a sort of a lot to determine which kid gets enrollment before the other this semester. The other will have to wait until she raises enough money, she says.

“By the grace of God, we will try to do it for our children future,” said Fata. “I will try to send my daughter who is in the 9th grade first and the boy will wait small until I get money to send him [to school].”

At the other end of the row of tables, Estelle Cooper, 52, is parceling Benne seeds (Sesame) into sachets of plastics. This is one of the several food items she sells as a source of income.

As the conversation about school fees attracts her attention, she quickly interjects, echoing the sentiments of several other mothers selling in the market.

For her, she’s breathing a shy of relief after paying a portion of her children’s fees two days ago. She thinks she is amongst the luckiest so far that have sourced tuition for children this academic year.

“It is not easy this year, plenty people are crying [complaining] about the way school fees have gone up [increased] and myself it is not easy on me but I just thank God for me to pay some of my children school fees,” she explains.

Cooper spent L$56,000 (about US$360) as part-payment for three of her four school-going kids. Last year, she spent about 60 percent of this amount.

Many of these marketers are clueless about the factors creating the hike in tuition; however, they are only worried about carrying the burden or remedying it.

At Liberia’s largest commercial district of Red Light Market also in Paynesville city, hundreds of marketers are reassembling their goods in the open after an entire morning of heavy rain. Many of them are hoping the second half of the day brings good luck to their businesses.

A handful of female marketers – probably in their mid-40s – gathered around to chat about a trending issue in the market.

When a visiting reporter sought their views on the lurking challenge of school fees, the women’s assertions appeared correlated.

“We want to tell the government to bring the school fees down so that we can be able to send our children to school because we are depending on our children for the future,” says Korpo Zazay, a palm oil retailer and mother of six.

“Things are getting hard and we hope the government to do something about the school fees because even if we don’t get [have] money to eat, let us be able to send our children to school because they are the ones we’re depending on for tomorrow,” adds Krubo Flomo.

As thousands of parents across the country bemoan the hike in schools fees, these marketers want the government to subsidize the salaries of private schools’ teachers.

Some reckon that such a move would reduce the pressure on the costs of private school.

In Liberia, access to education is a fundamental right of every citizen and the government is obligated to provide quality education.

However, the 2018/19 fiscal budgetary allotment for education is far less than the 25 percent [of the total budget] that is required by law. More than US$85.3 million was allotted to the education sector – this is less than 15 percent of a total of US$570 million.

The previous administration struggled to fix the system, which was massively overwhelmed by the dismal performance of students in public examinations.

Many are calling on the government to upgrade public schools in order to regain parents’ pre-war-time confidence in government-run schools. But critics say the Ministry of Education is reluctant to regulate the tuition fees of private schools mainly due to conflict of interest.

Abraham Dillon, a popular critic of the government, accuses officials of the MOE of owning private school thus making them lackadaisical to effectuate policies that would reduce school fees and alleviate the tension on parents who prefer private to public schools.

“The MOE can’t tell me and other struggling parents that it cannot regulate private school fees although schools are increasing fees without adding value to their services for students,” Dillion, who is a stalwart of Liberty Party, told OK FM on Wednesday morning.

“The MOE cannot say it doesn’t have the authority to determine what is charged by private schools but [yet] it approves the activities of these school.”

At the Nancy Doe Market in Sinkor, Monrovia, Korpo Jallah is still disappointed in the public school her daughter attends. She claims that even government schools are now charging more than what parents paid last year.

Recently, Jallah was constrained to pay L$4,000 out of a total of L$6,000 for her daughter’s registration fees to a certain public school located in Sinkor.

And Lusu Gbokai, the superintendent of the Nancy Doe, says public schools are undependable despite government claims that it is providing free and compulsory education.

“Even government school self [are] no different from the private schools, all of them are charging heavy [have increased their fees],” Ma Lusu said. She now seems resolved and unable to pay the school fees of five of her six grandchildren.

Purchasing school materials is even more challenging due to the increasing prices, she says.

“When it [the school fees situation] remains like this, I don’t think plenty of Liberian people [many Liberians] will know book [acquire education], because [many] people don’t able to get LD$1,000 dollar then how will they get LD$40,000 to pay their children school fees in this country.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on the Liberia education sector and the challenges of parents, teachers and students. Please keep following FrontPage Africa for the part two of this story.