School Choice

All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Some countries have the option to debate whether public schools, denominational schools, alternative schools, private schools or charter schools should be available to students. Some countries have the choice between public, private or no school at all.

Cambodian children have these two options today – private or public. Back in the days before the French implemented their system of education, Cambodian boys had the option of Buddhist schools. Monks were their teachers and the main focus was the teaching of Buddhist doctrine and history and how essential it was to gain merit. All other subjects were unimportant. Girls were not allowed to receive an education at all.

When the French came into Cambodia, they eventually implemented their system of primary, secondary and higher levels. Schools resembled western schools with curricula, teachers, supplies, uniforms and even inspections.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, the choice was no school. Education became non-existent. Schools were closed and many educated people and teachers were persecuted and even executed. The number of teachers living in Cambodia in 1970 was about 20,000. By the end of the regime, about 5,000 teachers were left and teaching had boiled down to indoctrination while literacy and math were neglected resulting in an entire generation of Cambodian children who grew up illiterate.


After the Khmer Rouge, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established and one of its goals was to re-build the entire system of education. Illiteracy had reached almost 40 percent. Children 14 and younger had received no education. Vietnam held great influence in the reconstruction of education and Vietnamese language was part of the curriculum. The 1980’s saw significant progress as Cambodia began to make small gains in education.

In 1989, the country changed its name to the State of Cambodia. Today, the nation has made huge improvements in education but there is still a long way to go. There is almost universal access to primary education and over 48 percent of primary students are girls. The government has built nearly 1,000 new schools and although very crowded, 53% of third graders read at grade level, Cambodian children have an opportunity to get an education.


There is pre-school though not all children attend and primary school goes from grade 1 -6. Primary school is in the morning or afternoon in the rural areas. This allows young children to work with their families after school. Homework is real work and many children still do not attend school. Parents must pay for the uniform and books – something that is a luxury for many.

Middle School or Lower Secondary goes from grade 7 – 9 and after grade 9 children must pass an exam to enter Upper Secondary (10-12). Secondary school is full day with a two-hour break for lunch in rural schools. Girls tend to drop out more than boys as they are put in charge of household chores, school is expensive and safety to travel to and from school is an issue. The cost of passing the exam is very low but for some it is a fortune. Some students drop out at this point. I did not have $3.00 to pay for the exams, so I had to leave school and find a job, a young man at a hotel explained.

One of the main issues related to the improvement of education and choice, is teacher pay , an issue that is shared by American teachers but not to the same degree. Teachers are still paid extremely low salaries and need to find other sources of income. This creates an issue in the quality of teacher education and professional development. As Kenneth Wilson explains in The Cambodia Daily, “The underlying issue is clear: Many teachers and administrators often seek other sources of income both within education, mostly in the private schools, and in other sectors as well. Insufficient government compensation forces them into multiple outside jobs leading to teacher absenteeism, generating income by requiring students to pay “fees” to enter class, selling exam answers and degrees, and charging for outside classes covering materials that should have been covered during regularly scheduled classes.”


As a teacher in a public school district in the United States, it is hard to comprehend that education although a right is also a privilege, that not everyone is entitled to it or can take advantage of it, that the choice is not vouchers, charters, public schools or private schools but the choice to have a basic education, to learn how to read and write. For many beyond our borders, it is a simple choice with tremendous consequences – to get an education or not. That is the true meaning of “school choice”.




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