The Battle for Pakistan's Schools

Schools vary widely in quality and radicalism.

Photographer: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

In the year that's passed since the Pakistani Taliban murdered 134 children at a military-run school in Peshawar, the army has successfully driven many of their fighters across the border into Afghanistan. To win its wider battle against radicalism, however, Pakistan will need not only to protect its schools but also to reform them.

The sorry state of public schools in Pakistan has encouraged a great proliferation of religious madrassas -- estimated to number anywhere from 18,000 to 33,000 and to graduate at least 200,000 students a year. These schools vary widely in quality and ideology, from mud-walled classrooms where children learn little but a few verses from the Koran to the sophisticated Al Huda schools for women that Tashfeen Malik attended before taking part in the San Bernardino shooting, to outright jihadi factories funded by militant groups. Under the "national action plan" formulated after the Peshawar massacre, authorities were supposed to map all madrassas, audit their accounts and regulate any foreign funding. But progress has been slow.

In any case, it isn't enough just to know where the madrassas are and who's financing them. Police need greater authority to investigate schools suspected of instilling violent ideologies or providing material support to jihadi groups. Thus far, madrassas affiliated with "good" militants -- the ones focused on combating India and Afghanistan, rather than the Pakistani state -- appear to have escaped such scrutiny. Efforts to introduce more secular subjects into the curricula at religious schools have been worthwhile, though they're unlikely to help students learn religious tolerance.

More important than trying to impose reform on the madrassas is for Pakistan to provide children with good public-school alternatives. As of 2013, more than half of public schools in the country lacked electricity and 42 percent had no working toilets. As many as 25 million children may be out of school altogether. Combined, the national and provincial governments spend only about 2.5 percent of gross domestic product on education. That share, among the lowest in the world, should be raised closer to 4 percent to pay for more schools and better-trained teachers. Businesses and nongovernmental organizations, some of them foreign-funded, have made worthy attempts to sponsor affordable charter-like schools, or to "adopt" individual public schools. But the problem is too big for the private sector to solve.

The hard work of cleansing school curricula of bias, sectarianism and the glorification of violence will have to be done by the Pakistanis themselves. Provinces control their own curricula, but it's still possible to establish national standards for teaching history and religion. Despite the resistance that can always be expected from religious parties, moderate voices in favor of religious tolerance and curriculum reform are greater in number in Pakistan. And they, too, can base their case on Islamic principles.

All this will require buy-in from Pakistan's powerful military. If schools are ever to be adequately funded, the army will have to accept a smaller share of the national budget. If students are to imbibe a less violent worldview, textbooks will have to downplay confrontation with India, which is often used to justify the army's central role in society. And if the jihadi pipeline is to be closed, all radical madrassas will have to be shut down, including those run by the army's onetime militant allies. Otherwise the war against radicals that Pakistan declared a year ago will never end.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.