The French government is sharply cutting funding for several hundred schools internationally, including a 40-year-old school here, leaving many parents anxious and frustrated.
An emotionally charged debate has emerged among parents, staff and the French Embassy over how much to increase tuition at the French-CostaRicanSchool to maintain quality without chasing away families.
France, which partly funds about 430 schools around the world, has traditionally shouldered about 50 percent of the French-CostaRicanSchool’s budget, while parents pay 40 percent and the Education Ministry puts in 10 percent.
But as French President Nicolas Sarkozy cuts spending to reduce the public deficit back home, the school here has landed on the trimming block. France will now pay just a third of the budget, leaving families to pick up the tab.
Based on the 2008 budget of about $3.13 million, the French government would be cutting about $523,300 a year.
If the school does not significantly increase tuition required to maintain the high quality of education, France will discontinue all funding and withdraw from the 1967 bilateral agreement that created the school, said French Ambassador Jean-Paul Monchau. The school would close within 18 months.
“I don’t want the name of France to be associated with mediocrity,” Monchau said.
“I prefer not to have a French (school) at all … And that is the threat.”
The school, located in Tres Ríos, east of San José, offers French and Costa Rican high school degrees. About 78 percent of the student body is Costa Rican and 16 percent is French – children of professors, teachers, small-business owners, embassy staff.
The remaining 6 percent hail from about 30 other countries, said director Jean-Luc Mathieu.
Nearly all classes are taught in French, and 18 of the school’s approximately 75 teachers were hired in France by the French government.
The school is run by the director and the French-Costa Rican Teaching Association, a group of 93 parents, teachers and Francophiles.
Last week, the association’s seven-member board met with parents to propose steep tuition hikes. Fees would gradually increase 63 percent over the next three years to $352 a month, up from $216 a month now.
The full association must approve, reject or modify the new fees.
Parents took turns sharing their reactions at a microphone at the board meeting. Some pressed their peers to support the hikes to maintain the school’s quality. Others criticized the French government for unilaterally withdrawing support.
Others asked why Costa Rica’s Education Ministry could not increase its contribution.
Education Minister Leonardo Garnier told The Tico Times that would be difficult, given the ministry’s other expenses. He said he respected France’s decision to withdraw funds and would respect the association’s decision regarding tuition hikes.
David Morera, a sociologist at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), was less sanguine. He said he would likely transfer his two children to a different school if tuition surges.
“We don’t want an elitist school, nor do we have the desire or the means to pay that much for education,” he said.
Rocio Murillo, who graduated from the school along with her brother, sister and husband, held back tears as she spoke at last week’s meeting. Murillo said she will tighten her belt and pay the increased fees – but only if the school continues to invest in teachers and infrastructure.
“If the quality decreases a great deal, I will withdraw my son,” she said. “I think we will be the last ones to leave the ship.”
Murillo worries the school is going downhill.
The French government has stopped replacing departing French teachers and administrators whose contracts expire. One native French teacher died in March, five left this month, and another three French staffers – including the school’s director and administrator – are set to leave next year.
To cut expenses, the French-Costa Rican Teaching Association is replacing the teachers with mostly Ticos, whose paychecks are about a third of French teachers’ salaries.
The number of native French teachers earning salaries in euros could drop to 13 from 24 earlier this year, said Warner Rodríguez, the treasurer of the association’s board of directors.
“One feels the school is coming apart,” Murillo said. “It is supposed to be bicultural, not just bilingual. We don’t want Costa Rican teachers speaking French, but French teachers transmitting their culture.”
Monchau has suggested an even greater tuition hike than the association is proposing. “There is no free lunch,” he said. “If you want to have quality teaching, you have to pay the price … There is no reason why the taxpayers of France (should) pay so much for the studies of 600 Costa Rican families.”