San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Grapples with Education Spending

Third in a series about the challenges facing the country’s public-education system.

Plenty of good things can be said about public education in Costa Rica, especially when viewed with the rest of Latin America as a backdrop. The country’s adult literacy rate is approximately 95%; despite the relative inaccessibility of some of its jungle communities and mountain towns, close to 100% of its children attend school; and its per-pupil primary education spending exceeds that of all other Latin American countries except Chile.

But the fourth-graders at Escuela Finca La Caja in western San José are aware only that their school, like many others throughout the country, doesn’t have the space or staff to offer classes available at some of the better public schools, such as a foreign language, or to keep the kids in class for more than 3.5 hours per day as they attend in three shifts.

Asked to portray “What I Wish My School Were Like” for a recent class assignment related to school leaders’ efforts to raise money for a new building (see separate story), Eliecer sketched a soccer field.

Javier said he wants functioning bathrooms. Shirley, beneath her meticulous, blueprint-like drawing showing every chair and table, wrote that she wishes she could study English.

The country’s schools suffer from lack of funds, infrastructure problems and inequality from region to region. The country spends $1,300 per primary-school pupil, compared to an average of $4,800 per pupil in developed countries and $100 per pupil in Nicaragua, according to a recent report by the Partnership for the Revitalization of Education in the Americas (PREAL). However, most of that spending goes to administration, teachers’ salaries and other expenditures; the Public Education Ministry gives the nation’s schools basic operating funds averaging just ¢10,506 ($21) per student per year.

Families are forced to make significant payments to keep their kids in school, and teachers buy curricular materials out of their own pockets (TT, June 30, July 7).

What’s more, though 84.1% of Costa Ricans finish elementary school, only one-third finishes high school – many drop out because their families can’t afford it, studies show – so if the ministry implements reforms to keep more kids in classrooms, as it plans to do, the burden on the state will rise significantly.

“If the goal is to reach 100% coverage, (and) right now there are high schools with three shifts because there simply isn’t space… Without improving infrastructure, increasing the number of teachers, equipment, texts, there’s no way to reach that goal,” Public Education Minister Leonardo Garnier told The Tico Times.

President Oscar Arias, who ranks education among his top priorities for the next four years, has already made several proposals to address the problem, foremost among them a constitutional amendment that would raise the percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) destined for education from six to eight. A separate initiative provides grants to low-income students struggling to finish their schooling. Both these plans leave one big question unanswered – where will the already cash strapped central government get the money? – but that’s another story.

In terms of the nation’s classrooms, the unanswered questions are these: Given that the government has never met its 6% constitutional mandate, established in 1997, will raising it to 8% be a mere token gesture? And what would be done with additional funds?

The Money Crunch

Despite the Constitution, the closest the government has ever come to spending 6% of the GDP on education is this year’s 5.6% – or even less, depending on how you do the math.

Analyst Miguel Gutiérrez, who directs the renowned State of the Nation program and this year published the first-ever State of Education report, an in-depth analysis of education in Costa Rica, told The Tico Times the reasons for the apparent inability to comply with the spending requirement range from the central government’s lack of funds, to the way leaders view the Constitution, to the way the GDP itself is calculated.

The 6% requirement, which includes funding for the Public Education Ministry, public universities and the National Training Institute (INA), was established in July 1997, an initiative of President José María Figueres (1994-1998). Only two years later, however, the Central Bank, which oversees Costa Rica’s financial system and sets monetary policy, recalculated the country’s GDP to match the changing production structure; this reform increased the 1998 GDP by ¢897 billion (approximately $1.8 billion).

This left the government, then headed by new President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), in a strange predicament. By executive decree in 2000, Rodríguez established a 10-year period during which time the government would gradually increase educational spending from 6% of the old GDP to 6% of the new calculation.

Either way, spending has fallen short. This year’s education budget is 5.6% of the amount required under Rodríguez’s gradual-increase decree, and only 4.95% of the actual GDP estimated by the Central Bank, ¢10.5 trillion (approximately $20.6 billion), according to the daily la Nación.

Calculations aside, Gutiérrez has strong words for the government’s failure to honor a constitutional right, though he emphasizes that educational spending and coverage has increased relatively steadily during the past decade. (In 1990, education received only 3.8% of the GDP.)

“If the Constitution of a country sets aside 6%, (spending) can’t be one millimeter less than 6%… in the United States, when they consign a right, that right is demandable, isn’t it?” Gutiérrez said. “But here the Constitution is seen more like an aspiration, not so much an obligatory mandate. It’s terrible. To me, it seems absolutely detestable… Quality education requires more aid.”

Arias’ campaign proposal to increase spending for education has met with widespread support in the Legislative Assembly, where it is ranked second on the agenda. Arias told The Tico Times before taking office that such an increase wouldn’t be enough to fix what ails the country’s schools, but is an important first step.

What makes authorities think raising the bar for spending will make a difference if the previous standard has never been met? Garnier, when asked, said legislators can’t just change the number in the Constitution.

The increase must be accompanied by tax reform, and also by institutional reform in the Education Ministry to ensure additional funds are well spent.

“It’s not enough to approve a constitutional reform,” he told The Tico Times in an e-mail. “It’s indispensable that before or with the reform, a tax reform is approved to generate those two additional points of the GDP as fresh income that can be dedicated to education.”

In the end, then, future funding hinges on the tax reforms the Arias administration has yet to present to the assembly, and which promise to generate an energetic debate, if the experience of the 2002-2006 assembly is any indicator. (That assembly debated tax reforms, the top priority of President Abel Pacheco, for nearly the entire term without ever reaching a conclusion.)

Preparing to Spend

According to Garnier, however, the ministry’s likely wait for more funds may not be a bad thing. Despite the obvious needs of the country’s schools, he says the organization isn’t ready to distribute an additional influx of cash effectively.

“Even if (we) had the money, one can’t spend two points more of the GDP overnight… and do it well,” Garnier said, adding that plans to improve coverage and quality must be in place before additional funds are assigned. “Spending two points more of the GDP without complying with those requirements could lead us to a big waste of resources; but improving quality and broadening coverage without access to those funds wouldn’t be possible either.”

The ministry must streamline its organization; evaluate the infrastructure needs of its schools, with particular emphasis on eliminating triple shifts; and take measures to improve the quality of instruction, such as strengthening teacher training so new and expanded schools have qualified staff to make them run, according to the minister.

These measures are now under way, including a plan to reorganize the ministry to eliminate compartmentalization. For example, Garnier said he seeks to unify the “loose programs” such as scholarships and transportation grants and create “one big administration” that coordinates the Education Ministry’s efforts with those of the Ministry of Housing and the Fight against Poverty.

In the meantime, administration leaders have announced other programs to provide more immediate support. At one of Arias’ first Cabinet meetings in May, Garnier and Housing Minister Fernando Zumbado announced a new initiative to address the country’s two-thirds high-school dropout rate.

Though the State of Education report includes studies showing lack of motivation as the reason most dropouts decide to leave high school, economic problems are certainly determinant for many students, so the government will provide monthly grants of up to ¢55,000 (about $107) to help high-school kids continue their studies. The education ministry will be responsible for monitoring recipients’ attendance and performance in school.

Through the program, which the ministry will test out with a pilot group of 13,500 students this year and gradually expand to an estimated total annual expenditure of ¢27 billion (approximately $53.5 million), the government will also open savings accounts for participating students during their ninth year. They will be able to withdraw the funds after graduating from high school, Zumbado said. Illegal immigrants who have been enrolled in Costa Rican schools for at least three years will be able to receive the funds, though authorities created the three-year requirement to avoid attracting additional immigrants hoping to receive the stipend immediately, he added.

For long-term change, kids like Eliecer, Javier and Shirley may have to wait. Garnier says improving their fate is a task not just for the Education Ministry, but also for the government as a whole, with support from the country’s taxpayers.

“Someone who lives in a 500-squaremeter house with television, Internet, all the books you could want, has more opportunities than those who live in a one-room rancho where the whole family fights over the TV to see the telenovela,” he said. “The rest of social policy has to enter the poorest neighborhoods for education to function better.”


Next: Educators share their views on teacher recruitment, hiring, training and evaluation.


The School Systemat a Glance

Number of K-12 Students: 941,796

Number of Primary Schools: 4,026

Number of High Schools: 752

2006 Education Ministry Spending: $1.08 billion

Primary School Graduation Rate: 84.1%

High School Graduation Rate: 33.1%

Source: Public Education Ministry






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