With increasing development in Cambodia, many people realize the value of education, but a persistent lack of funds for teachers and their tendency to extort money from students remain obstacles for the poor.
The need to bribe teachers for regular classes and "extra" sessions encourage the poor to drop out of school, continuing a cycle of poverty, rights workers say.
"I know that taking money from children truly affects parents who don't have enough money to pay for their private classes," said one teacher, who asked not to be named. "When they don't have money to pay their teachers, they simply disappear; that is true to my knowledge as a teacher. So, if educators are to be moral, ethical and professional, the government has to appropriately increase the salary for the teachers."
The problem is so pervasive now that it has become a common understanding between students, parents, teachers and administrators.
"Nowadays, I am working as a cleaner for Santhormok school," said a Phnom Penh resident named Konthy, who has three children in school. "When there is no class, I go collect waste."
Teachers don't take money from her children every day, "but sometimes they take it," Konthy said. Teachers can take between 300 riel to 500 riel per day, depending on extra classes in the afternoon, which are often necessary for a student to pass a class, she said.
"I am not upset, because the teachers have little salary from the government," she said.
Chey Sothea, the principal of a Phnom Penh primary school, said the fees did not amount to corruption.
"Instead, it is a kind of mutual understanding between kids and their teachers," he said. "When the teachers need extra income to survive, the children cannot just watch that, so they support their teachers."
Poor children are not affected, he said, because "teachers are warm hearted."
But that was not the experience of Piseth, a 10-year-old who dropped out of the second grade because he couldn't afford the 500 riel daily surcharge. "I didn't have money to pay for private class, so I dropped out from school," he said.
Instead, he said, he began scavenging for trash "to buy rice for my mom."