Kenyan School
Children work on their teacher's table inside a classroom as a nationwide strike, by Kenyan teachers demanding a salary increase, left most of the country's learning institutions paralyzed in Nairobi June 25, 2013. Reuters/Noor Khamis

Just one month ago, Kenyan grade school students had access to a public education system that has made great strides over the past decade. Since 2003, all Kenyan children have had free and universal access to primary schools. A young student in the capital city of Nairobi might incur some costs for her parents -- for uniforms or supplies, perhaps -- but she could rely on regular access to a classroom and to teachers who would help her practice basic skills like writing and math.

Today, those schools are shut down. A teachers' strike that began four weeks ago has led to a stand-off between the government and the Kenyan National Union of Teachers, or KNUT, with Nairobi finally declaring on Wednesday that all public primary schools will be shut down indefinitely. The teachers are demanding a salary increase of 500 percent, in accordance with a 1997 agreement, as well as commuter and health benefits, which would cost upward of an aggregate $540 million -- something the government argues it simply cannot afford.

The strike is clearly a major issue, especially if schools remain shuttered for an extended time period. But underlying these recent events is a flawed educational system with deep roots -- one that threatens to nip development and economic growth in the bud, despite all of the government's ambitious plans.

Before the strike, that aforementioned young girl in Nairobi could count on getting access to her school building. But the actual time she would spend on learning from a teacher each day would amount to less than three hours -- nowhere near the mandated five hours and 40 minutes. She would likely be behind national standards with respect to her abilities in math and reading. She would also notice frequent teacher absences -- someone would be there to watch her, but the faces and names might change from day to day, making curricular consistency a challenge.

Those troubling observations come from a World Bank report released this month. Researchers found that accessibility has grown admirably and many standards have been set out judiciously, but the reality on the ground still suggests a sizable gap between where Kenya's education system is and where it should be. The implications of these findings are massive. Kenya is one of the fastest-growing economic hubs in Africa; it's racing to become a middle-income country within the next few years. A youthful bulge -- about three-fourths of the population is under 35 -- could help drive new levels of productivity. But without a functioning educational system, young people won't have the skills they need to thrive. And with poverty and unemployment running rampant and a government considered one of the world's most corrupt, Kenya's children and young adults will need all the help they can get.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was elected in March despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes committed in the violent aftermath of the 2007-2008 election, made education one of his main talking points on the campaign trail and pointed frequently to the enormous 70 percent unemployment rate for Kenyan youth.

Since coming into power in April, the new administration has been making plans to get Kenyan schools up to date in terms of Internet connectivity, which would involve supplying electricity to those that are off the grid and funding laptops for public school students. These bold promises were well received ahead of the election, but now teachers are charging that their own demands deserve to be addressed first.

On this issue, the president is sticking to his own plans. “[A] teachers' strike is a serious issue currently, the government is ready to talk to teachers, but the teachers union must be ready to abide by the rule of the law, we cannot bend rules of the land for teachers,” Uhuru said, according to the Kenyan newspaper Standard Digital.

And while that controversy rages on, the primary school shutdown leaves children and their families caught in the middle of an ongoing struggle that threatens their very livelihoods. This is far from the first time Kenyan teachers have gone on strike, but it is clearly the most serious educational crisis in years. "The children, who are facing exams this year, lost some time last year during another strike, they lost another 10 days during elections and now they have missed out on four weeks. That is a problem we cannot wish away," Joseph Karuga, head of the Kenya Primary School Heads Association, told BBC. "These children are the people whose future we are talking about, and if we continue interfering with it, the cost will be enormous."