Education Suffered Various Setbacks

December 24, 2004

DESPITE an eager announcement byPresident Abel Pacheco and PublicEducation Minister Manuel AntonioBolaños to “relaunch” education byputting computer labs in rural high schools– thus bridging the gap between rich andpoor students – many schools throughoutthe country opened the year without basicinfrastructure, such as desks.When classes began in February manyschools, particularly in rural areas, werelacking not only desks, but also teachers,money and facilities including doors andadequate roofs and bathrooms.After 2003, when teachers went onperiodic strikes totaling more than threemonths, Education Ministry officials saidthey were committed to making 2004 ayear free of disorganization.BEFORE the first month of schoolwas over, a school shooting in Tibás, northof San José, left two 11-year-old studentswith leg wounds, apparently hit by a straybullet from a gun inside a 17-year-old student’sbackpack.The shooting rapidly inspired theEducation Ministry to announce a controversialpolicy encouraging school administratorsto search the bags of students suspectedof possessing drugs or weapons.Ironically, just before the shooting, theMinistry of Education and the JudicialBranch had announced a new agreement tobring alternative conflict-resolutionlessons into schools in an effort to reduceviolence in schools and society at large.MINISTRY officials also announcedcontroversial sexual-education reforms.Despite being pitched as a way to addressteenage pregnancy and AIDS transmission,the new policy guide for teachers onlymentions pregnancy once and AIDS twice.Although the 22-page guides focus onvalues and ethics, they were released withoutapproval from the Catholic Church.In April, the Ministry of PublicEducation announced another guide tobring more structure to the discussion ofdrug-use prevention.In June, data were released indicatingthe number of foreign students in CostaRican public and private schools has morethan tripled in 20 years. Most of thisincrease came from Nicaraguan,Colombian and U.S. students.THE “Education without Borders”program, which works to help this sometimes-marginalized population, celebratedthe end of its second two-year phase inOctober and moved into its third phase.While private funds continued to flowto that program, complaints continuedthroughout the year about lack of funds forinfrastructure and teacher pay.Lack of funding for education was onemain topic at November’s 14th LatinAmerican-Iberian Summit of Heads ofState and Government, which broughtleaders from throughout Latin Americaand Spain to Costa Rica.With an official theme of “Education forProgress,” the summit produced an accordamong leaders for “the conversion of a percentageof (national) debts into investmentin the education systems of our countries.”Costa Rica is only now recuperatingfrom education cuts made in the 1980s,and reaching education-investment levelsof the 1970s, according to economists.FAILING government investment ineducation is one reason Costa Ricans gavefor the final slap the country’s school systemreceived at the end of the year. Only50% of students passed the 11th-year stateexams, or exámenes de bachillerato, neededto graduate from high school.Of an estimated 22,000 students whotook the bachillerato exams this year, only11,000 passed by scoring 68.5% or higher,according to ministry estimates.Students, teachers and parents held amarch last week to protest the scores,demanding the tests be re-graded on a curve,a demand the Education Ministry rejected.Students, teachers and parents maintainedthe test is poorly constructed andpunishes students for the shortcomings ofthe Costa Rican educational system.

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