News & Events

Haiti’s Schools

A plan to build a new education system in Haiti is one of the most encouraging things to emerge from the rubble of the Jan. 12 earthquake. It is expected to be endorsed at a meeting on Tuesday of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the joint Haitian-international body created to guide the country’s rebuilding.

Talk and promises have been far more abundant than visible improvements in the lives of struggling Haitians. After a frustratingly slow start, the commission is finally confronting a range of urgent issues, including housing and debris removal. It is right that this meeting — only its second — is immediately tackling education reform head-on, since the current system’s failures are at the root of the country’s thwarted potential.

Nearly all primary schools in Haiti today are private; parents, eager to give their children a better life, pay dearly. Judging from Haiti’s high illiteracy and dropout rates and dire lack of qualified teachers, the system needs a complete overhaul.

The plan to reinvent the education sector is hugely ambitious but relatively simple. It does not try to build entirely from scratch — many schools will still be privately run. But the government, with international help, will provide generous subsidies to parents who choose to send their children to schools that accept new layers of oversight and accountability, including government accreditation, a modernized national curriculum and teacher retraining. These schools will also have to be certified as structurally sound.

The goal is to provide universal free or nearly-free education for kindergarten through 12th grades in accredited schools, with eventual government financing. The full transformation is expected to take 20 years.

The first, five-year phase is expected to cost $500 million. Half of that would come from the Inter-American Development Bank, which has helped design the program. The rest is expected to come from other donors. The plan is to build at least 625 new primary schools and triple the number of publicly financed schools. It would also retrain 90 percent of the country’s teaching force — 50,000 people — to teach the new curriculum, and it would train 2,500 new teachers a year, many through a program patterned on Teach for America.

Outside experts have helped develop the plan, including Paul Vallas, who brought ambitious school reforms to Chicago and post-Katrina New Orleans. Their expertise is needed and appreciated. But advisers also stress that the plan, which builds on a reform process begun by the government before the quake, has the full endorsement of President René Préval. We are glad to see Mr. Préval finally engaged.

Eight months after the quake, the list of things that need to be fixed in Haiti is dauntingly, disturbingly long. Indeed, there are still more than one million people who are displaced and need homes. This education plan, built with a constructive mix of homegrown initiative and outside help, should be a model for moving other desperately needed projects forward. There is no time to waste.