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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Competition for Education Cash Tainted

MTYelena Smirnova teaching algebra. The 25-year teaching veteran received a raise under the national project but says her job is not about money. "It's about the energy that you get from the children."
Editor's note: This is the last of four stories.

MYTISHCHI, Moscow Region -- Pacing between three rows of desks, mathematics teacher Yelena Smirnova peered down into the notebooks of her sixth-grade students, hunched over their classwork.

"Well done, but sit straight," she told one boy, her voice steady and full of authority, a legacy of 25 years on the job. "You're going too fast," she told another, who apparently made a mistake in solving the problem that she had asked the class to do.

In addition to teaching in School No. 28 in Mytishchi, a town just north of Moscow, Smirnova has so-called homeroom duties for students she oversees. She sporadically takes her homeroom students to see sights in Moscow, which recently included the Babayevskaya candy factory and a World War II museum on Poklonnaya Gora.

"I just want to take the children out. Parents, for the most part, are always busy," she said. "I'd like them to develop. It's interesting for them to be together."

Homeroom duties also include meeting students' parents to discuss their performance.

At least 900,000 teachers such as Smirnova received the largest proportion of the federal funding that came last year under the national education project, one of the four national projects launched by President Vladimir Putin.

The projects are now being spearheaded by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

The government paid each of these teachers about $380 per month for their homeroom duties, increasing their salaries by some 10 percent.

These homeroom payments made up about $292.2 million out of at least $950 million that was planned to be spent on the entire project last year, according to government figures.

Still Smirnova, 46, dismissed her monthly salary of $380 as "kopeks" in an interview over a lunch of burned potatoes with a heavy dose of salt in the school's cafeteria last week. "It's good that I have a husband," she said.

Her usual workday runs from 8:30 in the morning to 6 p.m., she said.

One day last week, she taught five lessons ranging from simple equations for the sixth grade to algebra and geometry for her ninth and 11th graders.

After teaching, she had to meet with a woman who came in to talk about her daughter's less-than-stellar grades. Next on her schedule was an optional math class for some 11th-grade students. Capping her day was a lengthy slog through three piles of classwork.

Some teachers have benefited more than Smirnova from the national project: Ten-thousand teachers who won professional competitions in their regions last year received $3,796 each from the government.

One of these teachers, Yelena Kolchina, who also works at School No. 28, was naturally pleased to pick up the prize but echoed widespread complaints, saying she had to take about a month to fill out numerous papers to run in the contest. After winning, tax authorities took 13 percent.

"The state has turned its attention to teachers," she said. "These prizes will probably change attitudes toward teachers and schools."

Kolchina gave the prize to her daughter, also a teacher, as a wedding gift, she said. Smirnova didn't compete, describing the process as too bureaucratic.

In other disbursements to schools last year, the government planned to spend $114 million on grants to the 3,000 most innovative schools, $57 million on connecting 28,500 schools to the Internet and more than $114 million on teaching aides and buses for rural schools, according to government figures.

"A considerable portion of the ideas promoted by the national projects has begun to materialize," Medvedev said last month, Interfax reported. "The processes go on differently, quicker or slower depending on the region, but ... the most important thing is that they have helped our citizens."

Education spending for 2007 is projected to increase.

University Life

Igor Tabakov / MT
The education project allocates $114 million for 3,000 innovative schools and another $57 million for Internet access.
The second-biggest group to have received government funds included universities that were determined to have submitted the best two-year plans to introduce innovative teaching techniques. The money -- $188 million -- went toward computers, electronic databases and other equipment.

Nearly 200 universities competed for the grants, ranging from $7.6 million to $38 million. A panel of government officials, business leaders and members of the Russian Academy of Sciences made the final decisions.

All 17 universities that won grants are state-run, including Moscow State University and Moscow State Institute of Steel and Alloys.

The steel and alloys institute boasts a long history of innovation that helped fuel the Soviet, and later Russian, steel industry. Yury Karabasov, the institute's rector, said past achievements helped secure the grant.

A former professor from the institute, Andrei Vanyukov, invented a copper smelter that has been widely used since 1977, Karabasov said. Norilsk Nickel, the country's largest copper producer, still uses it to make the metal, he added proudly.

"The win is not accidental," Karabasov said. "Any of these higher learning institutions is the pride of Russia."

But there's something else that makes the Moscow State Institute of Steel and Alloys stand out: Its rector, Karabasov, heads the Moscow branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and he sits on a government commission that oversees implementation of the national project.

Karabasov insisted that the judging panel made its choice based solely on the institute's merits, but he added, oddly, that if his institute had failed to snag a grant, he would have no business sitting on the implementation commission.

"Shouldn't the rector be there to argue [on behalf of the institute]? Or should it be someone who can't win a competition?" he asked.

The institute will use most of the grant money to buy state-of-the-art equipment, Karabasov said. For now, his university has to make do with chalk and blackboards, he complained. Students that land jobs at lucrative employers such as Severstal and Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Plant feel "like savages" when they start working there, he said.

The better chunk of the institute's grant will pay for a total upgrade of the physics, chemistry and other laboratories so they can rival the best research centers at metallurgical plants, Karabasov said. (In an effort to prevent embezzlement, the government required winning universities to buy anything worth more than $2,315 through a formal tender.)

"We want to forget about that chalk," Karabasov said.

Conflicts of Interest

Igor Tabakov / MT
While School No. 28 has decent facilities, teachers like Smirnova make just $380 per month. That includes her raise.
Some members of the judging panel were not exactly disinterested parties. One member, Alexander Asmolov, heads a department at Moscow State University. Another member, Vladimir Shadrikov, is director of a division of the Higher School of Economics, which also won an award.

As for business representatives, they included Andrei Mityukov, deputy director general for personnel at Severstal Group, which employs many students coming out of Moscow State Institute of Steel and Alloys.

Universities that lost, such as the privately run Russian New University, have yet to issue any complaints. The reason why prominent state universities prevailed is their larger size, longer history and stronger faculties, said Vladimir Zernov, rector of Russian New University.

Moscow State Institute of Steel and Alloys, which traces its history to 1918, has prepared a "constellation" of experts in the mining industry, he said. "Naturally, it's easier for them to create a competitive plan than for a young, private institution," he said.

Asked about Karabasov's political clout, Zernov conceded that there was "always a conflict of interests" in such competitions but said Yevgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research and a panel member, had helped guarantee fairness.

Russian State Humanities University, meanwhile, lost the competition, rector Yefim Pivovar explained, because business representatives on the judging panel were more interested in lending support to institutions that produced engineers and technicians for "the real economy."

Like many of the other universities that lost last year, these universities plan to reapply in 2007.

Drawing lessons from its failed bid, Russian New University will focus this year's proposal on efforts to expand its nano- and medical technology, Zernov said.

For its part, the humanities university is asking for money to build a center that would teach labor migrants about Russian laws and culture with an eye toward assisting the Federal Migration Service get a grip on immigration-related problems, Pivovar said.

Last year's loss notwithstanding, Pivovar said, the education project has helped focus his institution on more practical concerns.

"When they graduate, people should not simply be educated but be of use to society," he said.

The education project also stipulates the creation of two large state universities, one in Krasnoyarsk for Siberia and the other in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. Under the plan, several universities will merge into one in each of the regions, with the new entities getting $114 million each.

"The point of these changes is create absolutely new education institutions that will be able to compete with the leading Russian universities such as the St. Petersburg and Moscow universities," Medvedev said last month.

Singing for Money

A small piece of the national education project went to Ivan Kalachyov for a song. His award was part of the project's effort to reach out to students themselves.

"Raise your glass ... drink the vodka full of your tears, for the victory and for those who didn't survive," Kalachyov sang in his prize-winning song at a competition of patriotic songs in Voronezh.

The prize for Kalachyov, a resident of the Moscow region town of Stupino, was about $2,280 -- part of the $7.5 million the education project set aside to support talented youth.

Kalachyov, who now studies law through a correspondence program at the Russian New University, said the money is "sitting in my bank account." One day, he said, it may help him pursue a singing career.

'Psychic Income'

All this talk about money aside, Smirnova said she derives a far greater payoff from teaching, what former California Governor Jerry Brown called "psychic income."

"It's about the energy that you get from the children," she said. "It's about the working noise in class."

On her desk, there is a cup for holding pens and pencils that a student brought for her from a trip to Paris. She recalls that she was drawn to teaching by an old physics teacher.

The times have changed since she began in 1981. For one thing, there are the textbooks.

In one problem her sixth graders were working on last week, students were asked to calculate the profits of a business owner after he pays back a bank loan.

But one thing has stayed the same, Smirnova said. "Of course, there's always a line that separates the teacher and student. But we can communicate as friends. I can say with a clear conscience that I haven't insulted anybody over these 25 years."