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In Egypt's classrooms, lessons go only so far

Parents spend $2.4 billion annually to illegally hire private teachers.

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As students returned to classrooms this week throughout Egypt, there's one back-to-school essential parents insist on: private tutors.

Many say sending their children to school without having arranged for a tutor is akin to not outfitting them with notebooks or shoes. And it's not cheap. The country's Al-Ahram newspaper reported last month that Egyptians spend about $2.4 billion annually tutoring.

But what has become essentially a shadow educational system – one that parents deem necessary for students to get ahead, and teachers say is needed to supplement low pay – is also illegal.

Egyptian law prohibits the practice, as teachers typically don't pay taxes on their extra income and many see the practice as undermining the nation's educational system. But the law goes largely unenforced.

Several months before school began, Mahmoud Shouaib, a high school English teacher in the rural Egyptian town of Shebin El Kom, returned home to find five phone messages from parents – all wanting to hire him post-haste for the upcoming school year.

Six nights a week, Mr. Shouaib goes from home to home tutoring individuals and groups of three to eight. It's tiring work but well worth the toil, he says: tutoring has nearly tripled his monthly salary of 486 Egyptian pounds. Tutors in Cairo and Alexandria reap even larger sums, some making seven times their salary.

But as the use of private tutors has grown throughout the region to make up for substandard schools, what sets Egypt apart, experts say, is that poor families are almost as likely as the rich to enlist tutors. But because the fees pose a much greater burden to the poor, critics charge that tutoring has widened the rift between Egypt's classes. And those who do without tutors lose an academic edge.

Many parents say that school no longer fulfills students' educational needs, with the key to academic success resting on a good tutor.

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