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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Textbook Shortages Mark Start of School

The Disney characters featured on the back-to-school pencil cases and backpacks may change with the seasons, but in recent years Russia's annual textbook crunch has become about as regular as the first frost.

"The situation is as bad as it ever was," said a spokeswoman from the Education Ministry, denying recent press reports that the current textbook crisis is not as critical as in recent years.

Although 500 billion rubles has been allocated to finance the printing and purchasing of textbooks for Russia's 70,000 schools, only 170 billion rubles has been issued by the Finance Ministry to date, the spokeswoman said Tuesday, and of this sum, only 70 billion rubles has actually reached the regions.

Anticipating the annual textbook shortage, Russia's regional administrations have come up with nearly 200 billion rubles to purchase their own books. Financially secure regions such as Moscow may boast well-stocked school libraries, but Russia's cash-strapped regions face a more desperate situation. According to the ministry spokeswoman, the regions worst hit by the textbook shortage are Altai, Smolensk, Lipetsk, Bryansk, and Oryol.

"It is hard to say how things are supposed to work," said the spokeswoman. "We have a law that provides funding for textbooks that should be carried out, but once again it has been ignored."

The other major problem facing schools is the ongoing teacher shortage, made more severe by low salaries and constant payment delays. According to the Tuesday issue of Kuranty, there are 2,600 teaching vacancies in Moscow schools alone -- the greatest shortage being teachers of English, Russian, mathematics and history.

Add to the book and teacher shortage another wrench in the nation's back-to-school plans -- an overhaul of the Education Ministry.

In accordance with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's plans to streamline the government, the Education Ministry, which formerly dealt only with secondary schooling, is to be merged with the Government Committee on Higher Education, until now a separate entity. Announced less than a month before the start of the new school year, the move has caused a great deal of confusion in the corridors of the Education Ministry.

"We have no idea what to expect from the new administration," said the spokeswoman, who was bitter about the change. "Of course it will make things more complicated -- the first of September is just around the corner."

While textbook and teacher shortages have inadvertently become the trademark of post-Soviet education, there have also been advantages to abandoning a curriculum so rigid that it did not vary a page from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad.

All public schools are required to maintain what is referred to as the federal component -- the 2+2=4 basics that include, among other subjects, math, composition, Russian literature and history. But many regional administrations are introducing supplementary courses, from studying Tatar rituals in Kazan to the "I am a Muscovite" course to be introduced this fall in the nation's capital.

Hundreds of shoppers looking for educational materials that go beyond the basics gathered at Moscow's second annual back-to-school book fair in the shadow of the mayor's office Tuesday.

Bringing together 40 educational publishers and 10 major Moscow bookstores, the fair was organized by the government printing agency RosPechat to provide free publicity for struggling publishers as well as reasonably priced educational materials for parents packing their children off to school Sept. 1.

"If I want to buy books for my child, I have to do the rounds of 40 different publishers, but here we gather them all in one place," said Irina Frolova, a spokeswoman for RosPechat. "And this way we cut out the middleman, so prices are some 40 percent less than they would be in the stores."

That is no small consideration for families on a limited budget. Between notebooks, drawing pads, magic markers and other items without which first grade would be unthinkable, parents will have to shell out a minimum of 100,000 rubles ($19) to fill their first-grader's backpack -- backpack not included.