In an ideal world, complying with a decade-old constitutional requirement for education spending, ensuring that families aren’t forced to pay entrance fees for “free” public schools, and keeping kids in their seats for the last month of classes wouldn’t be significant accomplishments.
In Costa Rica’s public education system, however, government commitments and students’ realities haven’t always matched up, and the administration of President Oscar Arias appears focused on closing that gap as the Legislative Assembly considers new, more ambitious spending targets. Initiatives and goals announced recently include all of the above, plus a media campaign to target students at high risk of dropping out –something two-thirds of Costa Ricans do before the end of high school.
According to Public Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, who presented new strategies to attack the ministry’s chronic problems during a press conference Wednesday at Casa Presidencial, the country must step up its commitment to education for Costa Rica to thrive in its changing economic context. A century ago, two-thirds of all Ticos worked in agriculture or industry, but now the same proportion works in the service sector, where academic skills tend to be key. This makes improved preparation a must, he said.
The Funding Conundrum
First on the list of old problems getting new attention: funding. Ten years after the country’s Constitution was changed to require at least 6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) be spent on education each year, the government will finally comply with the mandate in 2007, Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, announced recently.
The spending requirement, which includes funding for the Public Education Ministry, public universities and the National Learning Institute (INA), was established in July 1997 as an initiative of President José María Figueres (1994-1998).
Despite gradual increases, however, neither his administration nor those that followed managed to hit the mark, with the closest being this year’s 5.6% (TT, June 30).
This failure has been a source of doubt about the viability of another Arias initiative under consideration in the assembly, apparently headed for a vote within weeks: increasing the constitutional mandate from 6% to 8% of the GDP. The proposal, which calls for a gradual phase-in period of 0.5% per year until reaching a total increase of 2%, or approximately ¢200 billion ($388 million) more per year, is expected to come to a vote in first debate as soon as next month, according to the daily La Nación.
The parties in the assembly, where the reform has plenty of support, agreed earlier this month to include two proposals by Libertarian Movement legislator Mario Quirós in the text of the proposal, the daily reported. Among them: dedicating the budget increase exclusively to pre-university education during the first four years after the reform, and universalizing public education through the end of high school (that is, ensure all Costa Ricans graduate). Now, only primary education is universal in Costa Rica, a guarantee implemented during Arias’ first term (1986-1990).
Where will the money come from? Garnier told The Tico Times shortly before taking office that tax reforms would be necessary, and that preparing the ministry to efficiently spend new funds would take some time.
“Many times people say that we could do more with the same amount of money, and that’s true, but… without improving infrastructure, increasing the number of teachers, more equipment, more texts, there’s no way to reach that goal,” he said (TT, June 2).
Rodrigo Arias echoed his words last week. Asked how soon the government would be able to meet this new requirement if the assembly approves it, he said it wouldn’t be immediate.
Other Loose Ends
Garnier recently addressed another violation of the Constitution: the fact that many schools apparently require enrollment fees or other payments to guarantee a student’s spot at the school. In a statement last week, he said it’s “voluntary for parents or community groups to offer some contribution to an educational institution to improve its physical plant or strengthen its services.
“Under no circumstance can this contribution become obligatory, nor can it constitute a condition for matriculating the student population,” the statement continued.
In addition to “voluntary” enrollment fees, families must also pay for students’ uniforms, books, and often teachers’ photocopies and other costs. This can total hundreds of dollars per month, according to parents and students The Tico Times consulted earlier this year (TT, June 30).
Garnier also pointed out that the Constitution establishes all citizens’ right to public education as “free and paid for by the nation.”
It must also be high quality, the minister emphasized Wednesday at the President’s Cabinet meeting. Though students and teachers, on paper, attend 200 days of school, those days aren’t always used well, especially the last month, after the exams that determine whether students pass the year. Many students don’t show up during those weeks, and the time is rarely used in an efficient manner, he said.
To change this, the ministry this year will launch a new approach to using that last month. Students who have failed one or more exams will participate in a three-week remedial class; those who passed all classes will participate in special projects related to science, art and other areas that often get overlooked during the regular school work; and as many teachers as possible from each school will get professional development assistance designed to address specific instructional problems at that school, he said.
In addition, the ministry will launch a media campaign aimed at students in sixth grade, the last year of primary school where dropout rates are particularly high, and instruct educators to take to the streets during the first week after mid-year vacations, another dropout trouble spot.
“We know where they live,” he said, explaining that school staff members and even returning students will be encouraged to find missing students and get them back in to the classroom.
The country must change its perception that completing primary school is enough to guarantee students a decent job, he said, pointing to statistics that show adults’ job prospects improve only after completing high school.
“In Costa Rica today, sixth grade on its own isn’t worth anything,” he said. “The only thing sixth grade is good for is to move (students) to seventh grade.”