After 20 years as an economics teacher at Brainerd High School, David Stark has a good idea about what forces drive the different economic systems throughout the world.
Stark recently spent 12 days on an economics study tour of Ukraine, a former communist country struggling to find its place in the global marketplace.
It was an eye-opening trip for Stark, a tour sponsored by the National Council on Economic Education. He and 10 other Americans toured several schools in three Ukrainian cities: Kharkiv, Kiev and Lviv. The Economics International program brings together U.S. civics and economic educators with their counterparts in eastern Europe, the Baltic states and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union.
The program helps teachers reform their educational systems and educate their citizens for the transition to a market economy, through training, materials development, study tours, conferences and organizational development.
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School supplies in the Ukraine are described as meager. One school visit was cut short because the electricity was turned off at 1 p.m. each afternoon, said Stark. Worksheets are covered with plastic in order to pass them on to other students. There were very few computers at the schools Stark visited. The only two computer labs he saw were located in private schools.
Teachers earn about $40 a month, yet necessities like gasoline costs as much as it does in the United States, said Stark. Many teachers hold two or more jobs to make ends meet. They may also grow and sell vegetables in their spare time to supplement their income.
"They're in an economic transition," said Stark. "It's a new revolution for them."
Stark said with the fall of the Soviet regime, it's been difficult for older communists to transition into a democratic economy. The younger people are more able to adapt to the new system of economics but the older populations may pose a barrier for this change, he said. In Ukraine, corporations pay a 30 percent tax on profits, an excessively high amount that is discouraging entrepreneurs from starting their own small businesses and making it difficult for business owners to stay afloat.
Stark said experiencing first-hand the difficulties in the Ukraine has meant he's better able to explain to his students the differences between the U.S. and eastern European economic systems.
"I told my students to tell whomever they're thankful to, to go home and say, 'Thank you,'" said Stark. "(In Ukraine), a lot of food, tires, etc., don't automatically appear as they do here."
Stark said Ukrainian students were most interested in finding out what types of music students in Brainerd like, and how they like to dress. Ukrainian students wear uniforms and stand when teachers enter a classroom. They also stand when answering a question in class, he said.
Stark spent a lot of time in seminars on his visit, helping to teach Ukrainian teachers through interpreters how to teach market economics.
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