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Haiti Scrimps to Send Children to School

ACROSS from Port-au-Prince's main cathedral, dozens of merchants line the street with tattered but prized schoolbooks, neatly displayed on sun-faded cloths.

As the beginning of the school year approaches, parents usually elbow in for a better view of the books in the streets, but this year prospective clients gaze longingly at the merchandise and walk away empty-handed.

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Education is such a priority here that parents have been known to sell the roofing off their homes to pay for it. But meager resources of Haiti's poor, who make up more than 90 percent of the population, have grown progressively slimmer as the political crisis -- begun with the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- ends its third year.

According to Peter Frish of the Maison Deschamps/Frish company, which sells 80 percent of schoolbooks, sales have dropped drastically this year. School directors and retail shop owners (Maison Deschamps/Frish sells wholesale as well) are feeling the effects of the political crisis.

Private-school enrollment, which accounts for 85 percent of secondary-school students, is down. Costs vary from 150 gourdes per month (about $8) to 3,000 gourdes. Although the Haitian school year does not start until October, schools corresponding to the French and American calendar year have already begun.

At one small private school, enrollment is half of last year's, and only half of those enrolled have shown up. At a larger school that caters to foreigners, Quisqueya Christian School, attendance is down by two-thirds.

''My daughter, a senior, has only two other students in her class,'' says the father of three girls enrolled at Quisqueya. ''Her junior class had 18.'' Half the students enrolled last year at Quisqueya were children of missionaries who have now left the country, he says. ''A large number of others are Haitians who have US citizenship and left this summer when they heard airline service would be cut. They've never come back.''

Students and professors out of the country prior to the termination of all flights on July 31 are struggling to return overland through the Dominican Republic's border. But heavy paperwork has complicated the process.

Quisqueya foresaw the problem of importing scholastic material and stocked up before the United Nations stepped up sanctions to a complete commercial embargo last May. Imported books cost 80 percent more this year than last.

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Mr. Frish says his textbooks, produced locally, cost 45 percent more, not only because of the increased cost of production but the devaluation of the gourde.

''Books and materials alone for the upper-level classes cost a minimum of 600 gourdes,'' says Antoine Levelt, executive director of Fond de Parrainage National, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for students. ''Teachers in the countryside don't even earn that much per month. If something isn't done to help subsidize education, parents will either be sending their kids to school without books or there just won't be school.''

When Fond de Parrainage opened in 1992, they were able to send 13,000 kids to 1,200 schools by pooling private donations and financial aid from the Haitian government. Although they received no money from the government last year, Parrainage received enough money from the private sector to help 4,000 children attend 400 different schools.

''This year, we can't even specify our goals,'' Mr. Levelt continues, ''because the government has made promises but no firm commitments. Members of the private sector have the will to help but are so strapped they haven't even been able to fulfill their pledges from last year.''

Aware of how desperate the economic situation is becoming, Haiti's de facto government issued a series of communiqus this week that propose to raise monthly tax collection, control custom duties, and require importers to report monetary transactions to the central bank. But the government has given no specific details on how or when these measures will be implemented.

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