01/10/2012 01:40 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Beyond the Earthquake: Haiti's Free Education System

Johny Dorvilus is heading back to school in Haiti after winter break.

Johny doesn't have a textbook, or anything to write with. Sometimes he wonders whether his teacher will turn up for class. Had Johny's mother been able to afford school fees when he was a toddler, he'd have started his studies at age three; today, the 12-year-old Dos Palais student would be entering junior high. Instead, he returns to tower over his Grade 1 class.

Still, he tells us he's full of hope.

Half of Haiti's schools were destroyed or incapacitated in the earthquake that shattered the country on January 12, 2010. The only reason Johny can attend school at all is because of President Michel Martelly's controversial plan for free education, launched last September.

Martelly is a rookie politician making good on a campaign promise uttered during last year's presidential elections: École gratuite! (free education!), now earning mixed reviews from parents who disagree about what constitutes "free."

Even before the earthquake, Haiti's school system was inadequate, with classroom space for only half of the country's school-aged children. Public schools charged a modest fee of US$1.50, but those schools were few and far between.

Private school was the only option for Johny's parents, since, like many rural towns, theirs lacked a public school house. The private school fee of US$30 was beyond reach.

Nearly 80 per cent of Haitian schools are run by private non-profits or religious groups. Fees for private schooling vary widely in Haiti, but generally range from US$20 to $50 per year. These are not Western-style boarding schools with perfectly manicured lawns and historic brick facades; they're one-room school houses maintained by non-profits that desperately need those fees to operate.

Since Haitian schools are in session for half-days, Martelly teamed up with private schools around the country to allow free lessons for the other half. This made it possible for twice as many students to attend without need for additional infrastructure in the short term. Private partner schools receive a subsidy, and teachers usually stay late to give both private and public lessons.

Despite government-sponsored fees getting kids in the door, parents complain that the Ministry of Education doesn't provide school supplies. So children like Johny sit in class without a notebook -- if they're lucky enough to have a desk.

We visited Port au Prince just after the earthquake, and then returned on the first anniversary to the chaos of a presidential election underway despite a devastating cholera outbreak.

Martelly was the favourite to win. The pop singer-turned-presidential candidate who goes by the stage name "Sweet Micky" was bold, passionate, and quickly won favour with Haitian youth. He promised free universal education in a country with a national literacy rate of 53 per cent.

Shortly after taking office in May 2011, Martelly announced his plan.

Public school is free for those who can travel to the participating partner schools, which are being slowly rolled-out regionally, based on need. Priority was given to areas void of any public school buildings, starting in the Greater South, then through the Central Plateau, and across the country. By 2015, all 1.5 million school-aged children in Haiti are to be in school.

"Martelly schools" are paid for largely with taxes from Diaspora funds, which are monies sent home to families from the four million Haitian expats living in North America.

The plan was met with criticism. Parents of students accustomed to paying private school fees have felt entitled to free public schooling, so non-government schools are experiencing dropouts. These are non-profit run schools, and they need students (and fees) to operate.

The Minister of Education was also tasked with getting half a million children who may never have set foot in a classroom enrolled in school in the first phase.

Naturally, classes overflowed beyond capacity.

Joel, a long-time teacher from the town of Layeye who only offered his first name, told us that there are more than 150 students in his three classes. He gives private lessons in the mornings and public lessons in the afternoons.

Joel's "Martelly school" hours are mostly volunteer work, since government-sponsored paycheques are often late, he told us.

It's not enough to get kids into the building; but it's a crucial step for the broken country.

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the quake that ravaged Haiti, media pundits fret over misspent aid dollars and recovery stymied by bureaucracy. Theories abound as to why the world failed to rescue Haiti -- much of the country remains under rubble, unemployment hovers around 70 per cent, and tent cities threaten to become permanent slums.

Haiti's free public schooling is a humble triumph in the face of extreme adversity. Our own development work in Haiti and our belief that education holds the key to eradicating poverty long predates the earthquake. Disaster underscored our belief.

Haiti now depends on the next generation to absorb aftershocks and take over rebuilding efforts that experts say will take decades. For this reason, more than most places in the world, children are the future in Haiti.