Second in a series about the challenges facing the country’s public-education system.
Every morning in this country of 4 million people, more than 900,000 students get up and get ready for school – in thatched-roof huts deep in the jungle, in small towns perched on the beach, or in the heart of bustling cities. The conditions that greet students when they get to class are unequal and unfair, those in charge of the system admit.
President Oscar Arias, who says improving public education is one of the top priorities of his administration, told a group of educators, legislators and Cabinet ministers shortly before taking office in May that students from poor families should refuse to forgive their elders for neglecting them: “Those children must not pardon us for this irresponsibility.”
His Public Education Minister, Leonardo Garnier, has echoed this sentiment. “It’s too unequal,” Garnier told The Tico Times of the system over which he now presides.
“People always say it’s unequal between public and private.No. It’s very unequal in the public school system itself. There are primary and secondary schools that are very good, and those that don’t even have resources or enough teachers or the minimum conditions so that people can learn.”
The cause? Time spent in classrooms, along with conversations with educators, parents and analysts, point to two culprits. First, though the formula governing the distribution of funds to schools is the same from region to region, the overall funding shortfall means that all schools lack money – so the quality of kids’ education depends on their parents’ ability to collaborate with donations. Second, bureaucratic inefficiency prevents the ministry from meeting schools’ needs in a timely manner, particularly those in remote areas.
Arias is lobbying the Legislative Assembly to increase the funds spent on education, and Garnier is working to reorganize the ministry. Meanwhile, how is the country distributing its resources today? Why is it that, apparently, funds for schools and students, as well as infrastructure elements such as repairs or desks, often aren’t enough; don’t arrive on time; or don’t arrive at all?
Divvying Up the Money
Ask a suit-clad administrator this question and one might expect a lengthy answer, but according to José Lino Rodríguez, the Administrative Vice-Minister of Public Education, it’s relatively simple. Local school boards report their enrollment to the ministry, which in turn distributes 85% of its total school operation funds proportionally among all public schools.With a few exceptions, the larger the school, the more funds it receives, no matter its location or demographic considerations.
The ministry divides an additional 10% among schools with fewer than 100 students, since certain basic operating costs make per pupil spending much higher in very small schools, Rodríguez explained. The remaining 5% is used to build new facilities and fix schools in disrepair.
The ministry’s total 2006 budget is approximately ¢536 billion ($1.08 billion), including funds for administration, teachers’ salaries and other costs.
A variety of programs exist to support students with limited resources. The National Scholarship Fund (FONABE) administers the highest-profile form of aid, becas and bonos.
The former are monthly scholarship for low-income students, the bulk of which consist of monthly payments of ¢6,000 ($12) per month for elementary school and ¢9,000 ($18) for high school. A total of ¢7 billion ($14 million) is available for this year, to cover 140,939 students.
The fund also grants one-time payments of ¢13,000 ($26), known as bonos, designed to cover the cost of supplies families must buy at the start of the school year.
These government scholarships exist in part because the ministry does not pay for students’ school supplies, mandatory uniforms or transportation. Neither does it pay for many costs teachers incur, such as photocopies or even curricular units, according to Gerardo Mata, a second-grade teacher in the farming community of Llano Grande de Pacayas. His classroom contains a decent supply of workbooks and units he’s collected during his six years at the school and 31 years as an educator.
Mata told The Tico Times he’s had to buy all his own materials, and displayed a photocopied unit he needs to plan that month’s lessons, which he bought for ¢3,000 ($5.88). “The ministry doesn’t give us anything, not even the chalk,” he said.
This lack of funding hits teachers in far flung locations particularly hard.Mata lives in the city of Cartago, where books and supplies are readily accessible, albeit for a fee, but teachers like Yorleny Leiva, the founding teacher in a small indigenous Southern Zone village that stands a seven-hour hike into the jungle, had fewer options when the ministry assigned her to the school with no training, no curriculum and no materials (TT, Sept. 16, 2005).
However, the problem affects schools everywhere. Stories of kids studying on the floor, in hallways or even outside because of lack of desks or space pepper the daily newspapers on a regular basis. Even schools in affluent areas, such as the western San José suburb of Escazú, suffer infrastructure nightmares (see separate story).
Most schools charge a voluntary, but strongly encouraged, fee to help pay for copies, building maintenance and other expenses.
This amount varies widely from school to school. Miguel Aguilar, the principal of Finca La Caja school in the shantytown La Carpio in western San José, and the former principal of one of the country’s leading primary schools, the Escuela Buenaventura Corrales downtown, says those payments are one of the key differences between the two institutions.
“Here we charge ¢1,000 (almost $2); there they charge ¢25,000 ($49),” he said, adding that in La Carpio, many students’ families can’t even afford ¢1,000. “There are good students everywhere. What makes the difference are the resources.”
Lack of classroom space and teachers forces overpopulated schools to operate in double and even triple shifts, meaning students like Steven Montenegro, in Mata’s class at Llano Grande de Pacayas, or Greivin Cruz, a second-grader at Finca La Caja, receive as many as eight fewer hours of instruction each week than their counterparts at Buenaventura Corrales (TT, June 30). Triple shifts also put students’ lives at risk: school personnel, parents and volunteers in La Carpio told me that under no circumstances should visitors stay in the shantytown after 4 p.m., but if 8-year-old Greivin gets assigned to the late shift, he can’t walk home until 6:05.
Asked about this problem, Garnier told The Tico Times that although the law requires 200 days of school per year – a cause of seemingly constant conflict between the ministry and teachers’ unions, which take issue with how the ministry dispenses the financial incentives due to teachers who complete the required days – it doesn’t specify how long those school days must be. He acknowledged many students, particularly those in triple shift schools such as La Carpio’s, aren’t getting as many hours as others.
Money, and the shortage of space it causes, isn’t the only issue. According to Garnier and others familiar with the system, ministry inefficiency also keeps resources from getting where they need to go.
Gonzalo Ortíz, a veteran high-school teacher who now serves as treasurer of the National Association of Educators (ANDE), told The Tico Times that while the Education Ministry parcels out funds in an equitable manner, resources are slower to reach rural schools.
“In rural areas, (resources) haven’t arrived with the same efficiency and urgency as in urban areas,” he said, citing as the causes a lack of communication and failure to evaluate rural schools’ needs quickly.
Minister Garnier seconded this idea, saying that when it comes to perennial problems such as the shortage of desks and chairs – when school starts every February, schools across the country complain of kids sitting on the floor or perched in corners because furniture has not arrived on time – it’s a logistical problem more than a financial one.
“In the case of desks, it’s much more an administrative problem,” he said. “We have to plan very well… not just have (the desks), but have them at the moment they’re required.” In a later interview, he described the ministry as a “dinosaur,” and said its fragmented organizational structure prevents it from taking effective action. For example, a separate office exists for each of the ministry’s social equity programs – transport grants in one office, cafeteria grants in another – so officials serving the same groups of students duplicate and sometimes complicate each others’ work.
Garnier also said, as he has in the past, that decisions that should be made on a local level are often assigned to national offices, creating further inefficiency.
The national scholarships are a prime example of bureaucracy, not money, standing in the way of success. This year, funds were set aside in advance, but that didn’t prevent delays. The administrators charged with distributing the scholarships said school leaders were slow to nominate students, though according to national regulations, the onetime scholarships designed to cover back-to school costs can’t even be requested until school starts, so families can’t use the funds for their intended purpose. In addition, students’ aid can’t be renewed automatically, so a student granted a scholarship for books one year must endure the same process, and wait time, the next year.
Reports that 47,000 poor students – 34% of the total the fund is meant to support –had not yet received their scholarships as of May prompted seven legislators this week to ask the Comptroller General’s Office to audit the scholarship fund.
Even La Carpio principal Aguilar, who told The Tico Times in March that he’d avoided delays with chairs and other infrastructure elements by being proactive and reporting his total enrollment to the ministry in a timely manner, showed signs of frustration in June when the grants for his students had still to arrive, increasing the chances some might not return after the mid-year vacations this week and next.
A Private Trend
According to some educators and analysts, what’s worsening these problems of lack of funds and slowness of distribution is the fact that some of the most vocal defenders of students’ rights – middle- and upper-class parents – are abandoning the school system.
Miguel Gutiérrez, head of the State of the Nation program that publishes yearly reports with statistics and analysis on a variety of topics, including education, said the proliferation of private schools has had an impact on the quality of the public system.
According to the State of Education report, which his program published for the first time this year, 7% of the nation’s elementary students go to private schools, up from about 4% in 1980, and 11.8% of high-school students, up from 6% in 1980.
“There’s an author (Albert) Hirschmann… who says that when the middle and upper classes withdraw from public services, it affects the quality of those services; they tend to worsen, because the people who have a voice are those with middle and high income levels,” said Gutiérrez, who remembers noticing “significant levels of difference” as a teenager when he taught underprivileged kids through an outreach program at the private school he attended. “They know how to complain about the quality of services. People with lower income don’t know how to complain.
They don’t have their own voice.” Costa Rican educational policymakers have relied on this theory in the past, according to Garnier. The economist, who served as Planning Minister during Arias’ first administration (1986-1990), said leaders in the 1980s disregarded advice they were given about the distribution of technology to schools, with excellent results.
“Many people told us… to start with schools that were going to be more successful. Costa Rica made a different decision,” he said. “Instead of starting with the strongest schools, we started with the weakest… I think that’s made all the difference in the world.”
Starting with poor schools encouraged richer parents to lobby for the same resources for their kids, he explained.
According to comments by treasurer Ortíz and other observers, underprivileged kids are no longer receiving this treatment. National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Federico Tinoco, speaking at an event at La Carpio’s school June 23, said 180 poor students in the Rincón Grande shantytown in nearby Pavas had applied for scholarships this year, but for some reason only seven were chosen to receive the $12-18 payments.
“What’s happening with this Costa Rica?” he asked.
Next: How Costa Rica’s educational spending has changed over the years, and President Arias’ plans for change.