Public schoolteachers in Kyrgyzstan face an uphill struggle.
The profession is one of the country's most underpaid and least prestigious occupations.
The need for teachers, though, has never been more acute: One-quarter of the country's population of 5.2 million is between the ages of 5 and 15.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government has identified education as a priority for support and promised to further increase teacher salaries by up to 50 percent. (A 15 percent increase already took place in 2005.) Promised reforms aim to decentralize the existing system of secondary education management and to delegate decision-making to the local level. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan planned to spend 4.4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on education, according to government statistics.
Nonetheless, teachers interviewed by EurasiaNet say they have seen few changes to date. Starting teachers can expect a monthly salary of just 500 som (about $12.40), according to the Ministry of Education; a teacher with 35 years of experience, like Galina Vershagina, only earns 2,500 som (about $62) per month. By comparison, government statistics put the minimum monthly cost of living at 1,943 som (about $48).
Inadequate financing affects more than teachers' salaries. Subjects such as foreign languages, computer skills, and history are often no longer taught, or are not taught by specialists. Computers, basic school supplies and textbooks stand in short supply, while over 300 schools nationwide are in dire need of repair, according to the ministry.
Particular concern exists about a growing divide between the quality of education in urban schools and those in rural areas, home to 83 percent of the country's educational institutions. Teachers who opt to work in rural areas can supplement their salaries with an extra $50 per month, but the payment cannot be claimed until the end of a three-year stint.
As a result, teachers from both urban and rural schools are leaving, searching for better opportunities in Russia or Kazakhstan. Most of the teachers who remain in the system are over 40, and many still rely on methodologies and textbooks developed during Soviet times.
To make up for shortfalls in education funding, the state often looks to parents. Public school students are often expected to pay an enrollment fee, buy textbooks, pay for participation in various events, or contribute to the renovation of facilities. Parents or international organizations and sponsors provide an estimated 93 percent of the funds required to repair schools, according to the Ministry of Education. Local governments provide less then 6 percent of the needed financing for school maintenance, the ministry states.