BAGHDAD — Iraqi parents who're fed up with corrupt teachers and neglected public schools are sending their kids to a place that Saddam Hussein banned: private school.
Six years ago, before the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam's dictatorship, the country didn't have a single private school. Over the past two years, the number has more than doubled, from 66 to 175.
That trend says as much about diminishing respect for Iraq's public education system as it does about Iraqis' growing enthusiasm for the new schools, which usually open in rented homes.
Parents see corruption on a small scale, such as when teachers nudge families to send their children to after-school classes, for a price.
"The corruption is unbelievable," said Enas Abdullah, 34, a Baghdad woman who enrolled her 12-year-old daughter in a private school last month. "They don't bother to teach, they just guarantee your child passes her tests."
Iraqi parents are more upset, however, by bigger scandals. Protests broke out this summer in three Sunni Muslim cities in which conspicuously low numbers of students passed their national exams, fueling suspicions that Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government is discriminating against Sunnis and others.
Alaa Makki, a lawmaker who heads the parliament's education committee, said he was troubled by allegations that the Ministry of Education discriminated against minorities, noting that students failed their exams at disproportionately high rates in Sunni Anbar province, in the Sunni city of Tikrit and in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah in Baghdad. Education Minister Khudhayir al Khuzai is a Shiite.
Just 27 percent of the students passed their 12th-grade national examinations in Fallujah, a city in Anbar.
"These people can't suddenly have lost their ability to study and all failed," Makki said. "There is an error, and we hope to correct it."
A spokesman for the Education Ministry acknowledged a problem with the test scores, and said they were under review.
Such disenchantment is an opportunity for the private Kowthar Intermediate School, which opened this year for students in the seventh to ninth grades in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. Abdullah paid about $1,000 to enroll her daughter there.
Sunlight pours through its large windows, sending a message that students will get some hands-on learning inside. Owner Wafaa Jowad said she'd opened the school to provide an independent, Islamic-based education distinct from what students could expect from the Iraqi government or its powerful political parties.
"Our school has priorities: teaching humane values, building character, as well as providing scientific material, and fighting bribery, this epidemic that has spread inside the educational institution," she said.
The Education Ministry, which is getting poor marks from parents for its performance at public schools, is embracing the private ones.
Jaafar Saloom, the ministry's director of private and evening schools, said his job was to cut red tape so the alternative schools could flourish.
"The results we have reaped so far are very encouraging," he said. "Many of the highest-performing students we are seeing are coming from the new private schools."
Iraq needs 4,500 new schools, which would cost more than $3 billion, Saloom said. He contends that the Ministry of Education isn't spending money wisely enough to meet that demand, a gap that private schools are filling.
"If the schools do a good job, very many Iraqis are willing to put their children's education ahead of all but the most basic needs and pay up," he said.
Private schools offer an escape from the perception of government bias in some of Iraq's Sunni neighborhoods. The Ministry of Education licenses the private schools but it hasn't imposed a political agenda on them, private school representatives said.
"The criteria in public schools have become twisted, and they have been forced upon us," said Ibtisam Hussein, the headmistress of a private high school in Baghdad's Sunni Jami'a neighborhood who worked in public schools for 20 years.
"The government seems to be floundering between state funding and privatization in all avenues," she continued. "With the huge number of new schools required in the country, private schools are one answer, but only if strictly overseen for rules and regulations and standards of education. If not, they could get out of control, and it will be the students who lose their future."
Abdullah, the parent in Baghdad's Shiite Karrada neighborhood, gets angry when she remembers the promise she saw in Iraq's school system when she was growing up. She had strict teachers who motivated her to learn. She wound up just short of pursuing her dream of becoming an architect.
She lost what little confidence she had in Iraq's current education system this summer when her daughter's scores on the national exams came in well below her typical grades, a sign to Abdullah that her daughter's classes were failing her. Abdullah didn't want to lose her daughter's chance to become an architect by keeping her in a public school.
"I still look forward to seeing a school that has a computer for every student," she said.
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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