San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is public education improving or worsening?

MANAGUA – As students try on their school uniforms and ready their backpacks in preparation for classes to begin next week, a new debate has started over the level of commitment by the Sandinista government to improving public education – a stated pillar of the administration’s “socialist” agenda.

Government officials claim they are embarking on a Herculean effort to salvage a public education system left in shambles after “16 years of neoliberal governments” that preceded the Sandinistas’ return to power four years ago. President Daniel Ortega has announced a goal of achieving universal sixth-grade education by the end of 2011, and Education Ministry (MINED) officials last week unveiled the first phase of an ambitious new plan to repair 200,000 classrooms and build 25,000 new ones.

The government’s goal for this year, according to the government’s official media arm, is to repair and equip 7,065 classrooms throughout the country, while reinforcing the Sandinistas’ “model of citizen participation in the education process.”

“We think that these efforts will create the fundamental conditions to dignify school conditions and guarantee that children finish sixth grade, which is our priority for this year,” Marlon Siú, vice minister of education, told state media.


Making the Grade? Despite efforts to improveeducation, the public school system is failing many students. Keith Dannemiller | Nica Times

According to MINED’s statistics, 202,591 children dropped out of primary school last year, representing more than 12 percent of all elementary school students enrolled at the beginning of 2010.

The government’s goal for this year is to improve school conditions and retention levels, while working with families and communities to ensure universal primary coverage through sixth grade – something that has been impossible so far since many primary schools don’t even offer sixth grade.

“Our government guarantees that starting in 2011, every school in the country will be complete through sixth grade,” said José Treminio, MINED’s other vice minister.

       Make New Goals, But Keep the Old

While many are applauding the government’s efforts to improve public education and set new goals for this year, others insist the government is not putting its money where its mouth is. Proof of that is the fact that Nicaragua hasn’t even been able to reach previous education goals set by the first Sandinista government more than 30 years ago, says Carlos Tünnerman, former minister of education during the revolutionary government in the 1980s.

As the Sandinistas’ Education Minister in 1979, Tünnerman said one of the first things he did was to sign Nicaragua onto an international agreement hatched in Mexico that pledged all signatory governments would designate 7 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for public-education spending by the year 2000.

Eleven years after that deadline has come and gone, Nicaragua continues to move further away from that goal, Tünnerman said. He noted that similarly impoverished countries, such as Honduras and Bolivia, have already met the goal.

After the 2011 budget was approved last November, the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP) expressed alarm that inadequate funding for education this year could also cause Nicaragua to fall short of its millennium goals of reaching universal primary coverage by 2015.

IEEPP’s economic investigator, Adelmo Sandino, said the government is trying to “play with the numbers” by claiming a 6.5 percent increase in spending for education in 2011. That figure, he said, is based on a figure in córdobas; but if dollarized to account for devaluation of the national currency, the increase for education is only 2 percent – insufficient to meet the demands of students and improve dilapidated school infrastructure.

Even more worrisome, Sandino said, is that government spending on primary education has dropped nearly 50 percent over the past three years. As a result, this year’s elementary school enrollment is expected to be 19,000 students less than last year, in addition to a 10 percent dropout rate, the economist calculates (NT, Nov. 9, 2010).

“Spending on education has decreased, rather that increased,” concurs former Education Minister Tünnerman.

     Is Ortega For or Against Privatization of Education?

Since returning to power in 2007, the Sandinista government has continually criticized the increased privatization of the education system under the administrations of its three predecessors.

In a 2008 interview with The Nica Times, then-Education Minister Miguel De Castilla said the privatization of the national education system was seriously harming Nicaragua’s development prospects.

“There was a neoliberal model. Students had to pay to study,” he said of the education system that he inherited from the previous administration. “Investing in education is the only way out of underdevelopment.”

De Castilla said the Sandinista government promised to fix that by eliminating school fees and uniform requirements. It was all part of a larger, revolutionary plan to revamp the entire education system, the minister promised (NT, Feb. 1, 2008).

But in April 2010, De Castilla was removed as minister after allegedly refusing to require teachers and students to participate in Sandinista rallies in support of Ortega’s reelection, according to local press reports. It was never clear whether De Castilla was fired or resigned.

Four years after the Sandinistas returned to power, subsequent MINED authorities continue to echo the same criticisms and calls for change made by De Castilla in 2008.

“Not only did we inherit a privatized education system, but we also inherited school infrastructure that was practically collapsed,” said Vice Minister Treminio in statements to the state media earlier this month.

Despite the Sandinistas’ constant criticism of the private model, Ortega threw a curve ball in his Jan. 10 state of the nation address, when he claimed credit for the advances of private education, as if it were a victory for his revolution.

“If we are going to talk about enrollment numbers, we have to include students who are enrolled in private schools,” Ortega said. “Are these students studying in another country? Are they studying on Mars or on the moon? They are studying in Nicaragua, even though it’s in private schools.”

Ortega also said that spending on private education – the money that many pinched middle-class families sacrifice to send their children to private school – counts towards state goals for spending on education.

“We can’t be talking about one country with a public sector and another country with a private sector; here we have to talk about a country that has a combination of public and private sectors,” said Ortega, as if he hadn’t been listening to earlier parts of his own speech.

According to Ortega’s math, spending on education has already surpassed the goal of 7 percent – if public-school spending (5.5 percent of the GDP) is combined with money spent on private schools, which is equivalent to 4.6 percent of the GDP.

“Those who are struggling for 7 percent [should know] we are already spending 10.1 percent [on education], because Nicaragua is one country, public and private,” Ortega said.

Ortega’s logic, however, appears back-wards, critics say.

By taking credit for the efforts that many Nicaraguan families are making to send their kids to private school, the president appears to be ignoring the fact that many families make such sacrifices precisely because public schools are failing.

The inadequacy of the public school education was further demonstrated last week when the National University of Engineering (UNI) reported that only 130 prospective college students of 2,283 high school graduates – less than 6 percent – passed the university’s entrance exam earlier this month. Of the few that passed, most came from the private school system.

A further breakdown of the public-school budget suggests why high school students are so ill-prepared. Of the 5.5 percent of GDP spent on public education, only 3.8 percent is spent on primary schools, while the other 1.7 percent is spent on public universities.

Telémaco Talavera, president of the National Council of Universities, said Ortega shouldn’t confuse public and private spending on education.

“We have to separate the two things. One thing is the enormous efforts that families are making to send children and adults to private schools and another thing is the investment that the state is making in public education,” Talavera told The Nica Times this week. “Private investment should not substitute public spending on education.”

While Talavera acknowledged some of the efforts the government has made to improve education, he said deficiencies in the education system continue to become more apparent every year. He said teacher salaries in Nicaragua continue to be the lowest in the region and school infrastructure is “in critical condition.”

“We have to invest more money and we have to invest it more smartly,” he said. “We also have to transform the education system in terms of curriculum and pedagogical methods, as well as in terms of technical and scientific aspects. The whole education system needs to be transformed, from primary school to higher education.”

In other words, Talavera said, Nicaragua’s education system needs a revolutionary overhaul – something the Sandinista government and its rotating education ministry officials have been promising for the past four years.

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