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Hunt for 'Ghost' Schools: How Pakistan Reforms Education

Government vowed 'holy war' on illiteracy in March. Critics say money is key.

In an unprecedented move, Pakistan's Army has been called upon to probe the country's troubled school system.

The government recently ordered hundreds of soldiers to search 56,000 primary schools in Punjab, the largest province, to find and shut down what are commonly known as "ghost schools."

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These schools, mostly in rural areas, are "haunted" by powerful people such as wealthy landowners, who forcibly take over buildings for private use, often leaving local children without an education. Officials can't say how many of these schools exist, but a team of soldiers was reported to have found one former school being used an underground liquor factory.

"We will make certain that nobody remains above the law, and we will go after ghost schools wherever we find them," Pakistan's education minister, Ghaus Ali Shah, proclaimed last month.

The campaign to check out the schools came during a week when Pakistan unveiled a national education reform policy. Some of its more important aspects include commitments to update a curriculum that hasn't been revised for almost two decades, add computer classes, and encourage private businesses to set up schools and colleges.

The reforms are meant to improve Pakistan's literacy rate, officially 38.9 percent of the 140 million population. Mr. Shah promised a jihad, or holy war, to raise the literacy rate to 70 percent by the end of the next decade.

Unlike the United States, Pakistan cannot afford to guarantee a 12-year education for every child. Successive governments, however, have pledged to try to create opportunities for each child to go to school. The government says 71 percent of children age 5 and up presently attend primary school.

Some critics argue the reform effort will fail, mainly due to insufficient funding. Shah told journalists the government would almost double the national education budget from $1.4 billion this year to $2.5 billion in the next five years.

But the estimate is based on projections the economy will grow by 6 percent a year. "It's not likely that the economy will grow by that margin, and so one issue is that of resources," says former government economist Arshad Zaman, now a private consultant.

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Other analysts say that education reform must be driven by changes in the workings of Pakistan's government. "You really need decentralized government and decentralized decisionmaking to empower schools and colleges right at the grass roots," says Nasim Zehra, a respected national columnist. "Right now, even if the wall of a school collapses, the school needs to go to the Education Ministry to get approval for construction."

Shah agrees there's room for improvement. "An important feature of the education policy is its built-in capacity to absorb any innovative measure that will carry positive implications during its implementation," he says.

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