Education has once again come to take centre stage in political campaigns ahead of the August 8 General Election.
In 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) successfully used the pledge of free primary school education to woo voters.
Delivery on the particular promise remains one of retired President Mwai Kibaki’s enduring legacies.
In 2013, Jubilee Coalition promised laptops for every primary school learner.
However, it is concluding its first term not having delivered anything more substantial than a pilot programme.
This time round, the two main political formations have latched onto free secondary education as the lever to pull voters.
This was evident at the weekend when the Jubilee Party campaign led by President Uhuru Kenya and National Super Alliance (Nasa) led by Mr Raila Odinga started tussling over which of the two camps was the first to pledge free education.
At a campaign rally in Kapsabet, Mr Odinga and his running mate Kalonzo Musyoka moved to claim ownership of the free education proposal, saying it was an initiative they floated as far back as 2003 when serving in the Narc government with President Mwai Kibaki. They accused President Kenyatta of stealing their idea.
At that time Mr Kenyatta, who had been defeated by Mr Kibaki in the 2002 elections, was leader of the Official Opposition, Kanu, and was roundly dismissive of the free education initiative.
As the Nasa leaders were in Kapsabet promising to implement free secondary school education in the school term beginning in September if they win the August elections, President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were in Gilgil, where they accused the Nasa campaign of stealing their idea and only bringing implementation forward.
SUBSIDISING TUITION FEES
The pledge of free secondary education is not new. In 2008 the grand coalition government of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga promised to extend free education to secondary school.
But all it did was take up some of the costs, subsidising tuition fees for each student to the tune of Sh10,000 annually, before the amount increased to Sh12,870.
But students in boarding schools still had to each pay Sh53,554, day schools Sh9,374, and special needs schools Sh37,210 to meet the other expenses involved in running a school.
Even with the set fees, schools often ask parents to dig deeper into their pockets to cater for costs such as school transport, extra-curricular activities, learning equipment, furniture, repairs and maintenance, and even salaries for additional teachers.
The government has allocated Sh32.7 billion for secondary schools and Sh14 billion for free primary education in the current financial year.
Yet, if the government is to take over fee payment for all the estimated 2.5 million students in secondary schools, it will require more than Sh100 billion annually.
On Monday, education stakeholders interviewed by the Nation welcomed the promises, but cautiously.
Education expert, Dr John Mugo, says neither government nor opposition can realise pledges to provide free secondary education when even primary education was not completely free.
“They are not strategic in their proposal,” notes Dr Mugo of Uwezo Kenya, an education think tank.
He says the focus should be on ensuring more pupils transition successfully from primary to secondary, and improvements on bursary disbursement and scholarships for the needy before talking of universal free education.
“The promise of free secondary education is political,” he says. He quickly adds: “It sounds good but is impractical.”
Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) secretary-general Wilson Sossion concurs that the promises were political.
“If [the government] cannot sustain the free primary education and the subsidised secondary education, how can it talk of paying full fees for all students in secondary schools?” he poses.
“We will appreciate if they focused on improvement of infrastructure, provision of food to students and employment of more teachers and payment of tuition fee on time,” Mr Sossion said.