Who Pays for Education? How Poor Egyptian Mothers Finance Their Children's Learning.

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.2.03 (Tower Two)
Heba Gowayed, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
The goal of this paper is to bring households into the study of the impact of state institutions on the poor. Households, and particularly poor households, as clients of public services, bear the brunt of low-quality institutions. Understanding the relationship between state institutions and individuals thus requires the inclusion of this meso-level management site. This paper explores the relational management strategies that emerge within poor households attempting to manage the dysfunction state services which do not meet their institutional goals. To do so I draw on the experience of 145 women attempting to educate their children through public schools in Ain EsSira, a low-income neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt.
Despite a constitutional guarantee for free education for all, public education in Egypt is expensive. Families are coerced by teachers into paying for after-school sessions called "study groups" and "private lessons." Parents who don’t pay see their children kicked out of class and threatened with failure. Taken together, these payments are often equal to 50% of what those families spend on food per month.
Although teachers are depicted as the wrongdoers in the accounts of parents, they are, themselves, subject to base salaries which are often below the poverty line as state employees, which threatens their ability to feed their own families. In addition teachers' jobs are made difficult by overcrowded classrooms and very few resources at their disposal. Due to systemic underfunding of K-12 education and misallocation of funds, public schools, accessed predominantly by the poor, do not match their institutional goal of free, quality education. Thus the informal system of payments made by families, which emerges in the form of salary supplements for teachers, fills a gap the formal system leaves behind.
In the context of limited resources available within poor households, finding the money to pay these fees requires delicate management. The work of managing household budgets towards this expense is taken up by mothers. 89% of the 145 women included in this study reported taking sole responsibility for their children’s education. This responsibility often included negotiations with their husbands, confrontations with teachers, and the cobbling together of disparate, limited resources to meet this expense. These management strategies taken up by women are instrumental to keeping children in school.
From October 2009 to October 2011 the women included in this study were the recipients of a poverty alleviation project. The project was a government-run Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) pilot, which transferred cash to poor women with school aged children (250 EGP a month) in return for their fulfillment of conditions including child attendance of school 85% of school days. This pilot, like other CCTs internationally, did not stipulate how recipients should spend the money, aiming instead to nudge recipients towards a free state-provided service; and thus implicitly turned a blind-eye to this off-the-books cost of child education and the burden it poses on households. It is not surprising however that 75% of participant women reported spending the CCT money predominantly on these informal fees. In fact, study groups held with women from Ain EsSira in the year prior to the program’s launch revealed that payments for child education comprised one of the household’s most substantial expenses.
While the CCT cash certainly helped the fundraising process for school expenses, it did not do away with the struggle of delicately navigating budgets around this informal educational expense. Moreover, for women with several children, it often fell short of the needed amount, due to the multiple demands on their limited resources. As such, the money from the CCT became but one of many strategies to confront this informal cost of education — which persisted as a burden prior to, during, and after the pilot program.
The systemic nature of these informal fees has been captured by researchers and journalists alike; who have observed this practice of payments for children’s education far beyond the confines of Ain EsSira, but who have not specifically considered the household negotiations around this expense, or their gendered nature. I draw on Viviana Zelizer’s relational approach to understanding economic lives in order to explore the household level process and struggles involved in paying for child education in this Egyptian context. Specifically, I explore links between educational institutions, gendered social policies, and household practices. How do Ain EsSira mothers cobble together resources to manage the expense of child education within households where resources are constrained? What sorts of negotiations take place within the household between mothers, fathers, and children as well as outside the household with teachers? How does a poverty alleviation program, such as the CCT, intervene in this negotiation process? To answer these questions, I draw on qualitative research conducted in this neighborhood between September 2008 and May 2013.
The paper turns first to a discussion of the literatures on institutions and poverty management, with a particular focus on gendered poverty strategies. Then, after a discussion of the historical background of Egypt’s educational system, I turn to describe the study methods. Next, I describe the multiple informal economic arrangements and negotiations involved within and outside the household to manage teachers’ payments. Finally, I briefly note teachers’ distinct interpretation of this informal economy.