Hundreds of teachers played hooky last week.
In a nationwide strike organized by the High-School Teachers’ Association (APSE), teachers called for government measures that would bring greater job stability and higher salaries.
The teachers want changes in the government’s hiring system,which has been mired in scandal in recent years. They are also pushing for a law that would allow them to teach more classes as part of their full-time jobs in order to earn more money. Other demands include smaller classes and salaries that are more proportional to their workloads.
The Ministry of Public Education (MEP) and the Civil Service, which manages human resources in the Executive Branch, are essentially saying, “What’s all the fuss?” They point out that the proposed law has already passed through commission in the Legislative Assembly, and they claim that the hiring system is now running smoothly.
“This is a nonsensical discussion,” said Civil Service Director José Joaquín Arguedas,who noted that the larger teachers’ union, the National Association of Educators (ANDE), did not join calls for a strike. “It’s a conversation among deaf people.”
But Jesús Vásquez, president of the 17,000-member APSE, claims otherwise.“The authorities of the Education Ministry and the authorities of the Civil Service are trying to trick the teachers,” he said angrily at a press conference before the July 26 strike.
In Costa Rica, one of the only Latin American countries where teacher placement decisions are made by central, not regional, authorities, MEP’s Personnel Department works with the Civil Service to fill positions.
In past years, this process has been mired in political favoritism and bureaucratic errors, which caused teachers to be improperly notified or assigned (TT, Feb. 16).
Vásquez says that the selection process for next school year, which begins in February, has again generated “uncertainty, indignation and anxiety.”
Last week, a Web site maintained by the Civil Service advertised 200 vacant spots that would rightfully belong to other teachers if the Legislative Assembly passes a law recently approved in commission. The Civil Service removed the spots from its list of vacancies after APSE voiced concerns.
“If not for our intervention at this time, hundreds of teachers . . . would be facing – in the next school year – a catastrophic situation of economic and work-related instability,” Vásquez wrote in a letter to the Education Ministry.
Now APSE says there may be more errors in the list of vacancies. The association is demanding that the Civil Service temporarily shut down the Web site and allow teachers’ unions to review it.
Nonsense, responds Civil Service director Arguedas. He points out that the list of vacancies is merely a reference, and that positions will not be assigned until November.
“The important thing is not the list. The list will change tomorrow,” he said, adding that there are an average of 10 new vacancies every day. “The important thing is that you, the teacher, are registered in the contest.”
As of Wednesday, some 33,200 applicants for teaching positions had registered on the Web site, which lists about 2,700 vacancies.
José Antonio Barquero, president of the 45,000-member ANDE, says he is satisfied with the registration system – especially its digital nature. Before the Civil Service launched its Web site (www.sercivil.go.cr) last year, teachers had to travel to San José and wait in long lines, often for the whole day, to register for jobs.
Beginning in November, placements will be assigned for the 2008 school year.
Even if the system ends up running smoothly, a root problem remains: job insecurity.
Teachers are allowed to have at most 32 weekly classes as part of their permanent workload, but they can supplement their salaries with temporary positions, or plazas interinas.
“This generates work-related uncertainty and instability for teachers,” reads the proposed law, which would increase the maximum number of classes to 40.
Edgar Durán, APSE’s general secretary and a former teacher, would have made just $540 a month with only 32 classes. Adding 12 temporary lessons increased his salary to $816.
“No teacher in this country can survive decently with 32 classes,” he said.
The bill, drafted by the Education Ministry and whose passage is among APSE’s demands, was approved unanimously in the Social Affairs Commission. In September, it will be added to the agenda for discussion by the full Assembly. But the law may not be passed for months, and until then teachers must rely on temporary posts to make a decent living.
At last week’s rally in San José, teacher Adrian Marín worried he would lose his temporary positions because he did not see any option to register as a computer teacher.
“I went to register, and my specialty did not appear. English, math and science appeared, but not computing,” he said. “The page has errors.” Arguedas, however, maintains that computing is listed.
Jorge Usaga, a social studies teacher and regional vice-coordinator of APSE, thinks that teacher appointments are political –and with good reason. In February, the Personnel Department Director at the Education Ministry resigned following reports that National Liberation Party (PLN) members had undue influence on hiring choices (TT, Feb. 16).
The law mandates that teachers be chosen according to merit from a national registry of teachers. But Arguedas says that in past years, a list of vacant positions was made every July, and only those spots were filled using the registry. Spots that became available beginning in August were often filled by regional officials looking to do political or personal favors.
“It was just hand picking – an acquaintance, a friend, a political follower,”Arguedas said. “(The process) did not follow the principals of civil service – principals that had to do with merit and ability.”
Now, Arguedas claims, the Civil Service has regained control of the hiring system. Vacancies will be reported throughout the year – not just in July – and filled according to merit using a permanent registry of eligible teachers.
“This (registry) has changed the system of managing the administration of human resources in education,” he declared.
Many teachers have yet to be convinced.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Usaga said. “Civil Service has very good intentions, but let’s see how [the system] works in practice.”
At the rally, some teachers carried signs protesting the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
As the country nears an Oct. 7 referendum on the agreement, CAFTA has saturated nearly every political event, and the APSE strike was no exception.
The Education Ministry suggested the strike’s purpose was “to generate discontent against the government surrounding the referendum.”
Meanwhile, APSE general secretary Durán claims that the pro-CAFTA administration is deliberately making mistakes in the registry to divert teachers’ attention from their anti-CAFTA campaign.