Sending his children to private school is a decision that José Hernán Acuña doesn’t regret.
In his two decades as a parent of students at Colegio Madre del Divino Pastor in Guadalupe, Acuña has seen the sons and daughters of poor and middle class families become engineers, doctors and professors.
He has watched test scores come back registering as some of the highest in the district. And he has celebrated as his four children avoided the violence that has plagued nearby public schools.
Acuña is so impressed with the achievements of Costa Rican private schools that he mused during an interview this week, “There isn’t one thing they do wrong.”
Though the accomplishments of private schools are as stark to him as a bright red apple on a teacher’s desk, he is watching a movement unfold that could significantly change or even close some private schools.
For more than 35 years, many of these schools in Costa Rica have been sustained by government funding. Although donations and tuition contribute to administrative costs, building maintenance and other capital expenditures, the Costa Rican government has long paid teacher salaries.
Legislators are currently considering a bill that would solidify this funding by law. However, they have received unexpected opposition from several education unions.
“How can we take resources from public education, that already has many needs, in order to finance private business?” asked Gilberth Díaz, president of the Education Workers Union (SEC). “This promotes inequality between the poor and the rich.”
The Education Ministry allocates more than ¢7 billion (roughly $12 million) to 90 of the country’s private schools each year.
These funds help lower operating costs and pay teacher salaries, thereby reducing student tuition. The ministry estimates that approximately 20,900 students benefit indirectly through the government allocations.
For schools like the Colegio Madre del Divino Pastor, where 90 percent of the students have reduced tuitions or full scholarships, the government subsidy is essential to the school’s existence.
“Most students cannot pay for private school,” Acuña said, estimating that students now pay between ¢22,000 and ¢23,000 ($40) per month to attend these schools. He said that without government funding that cost would be much higher.
“As public education has deteriorated over the past two decades,” Acuña said, “I don’t understand why they want to eliminate (private school funding).”
The move to make the ¢7 billion governmental allocation to private schools law stemmed from a finding by the Comptroller General’s Office, which issued a report in 2003 saying that such funding lacked adequate controls and supervision.
The Education Ministry responded in 2006 with a regulation designed to monitor the allocation. It, however, was stalled in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) on a legal technicality.
Concerned that the newly proposed bill would deflect much-needed funds from public education, major unions are lobbying legislators to reject it.
“Our responsibility is to make sure that public education is not affected and is not commercialized,” Díaz said, who is joined in his opposition by the National Association of Educators (ANDE). Díaz warned of what he considers a danger in using public resources to finance private endeavors.
Libertarian Mario Quirós, a staunch advocate of the bill and continued state support of private schools, responded, “If you have a garden with a grand, flowering tree in the backyard, why would you cut it down? This system has flourished for (35 years), why would you eliminate it? It’s been another way to help the state educate its children.”
The bill, which was languishing on the sidelines for months after it was proposed in 2007, rose to the top of the legislative agenda when dozens of Catholic school parents and teachers lobbied at the Legislative Assembly in mid-April. The bill is scheduled for renewed discussion on Tuesday, May 19.
Officials with the Education Ministry are hesitant to endorse the proposal because they say it provides no parameters to determine which institutions may benefit from the state subsidy. Also, ministry officials say it does not provide a mechanism for monitoring how private institutions use state funds.
“We acknowledge that centers deserve and need this state help,” said Silvia Víquez, administrative vice president with the Education Ministry, in a statement. However, the ministry believes that the bill restores abuses in the handling of funding that the ministry had already eliminated.
One of the most serious faults with the proposed law, according to Diaz, is that it establishes a double standard, offering funding to private schools with no strings attached.
“In Costa Rica, there are only two types of education: public and private,” Diaz said. “The private institutions can choose their students and their professors (unlike public schools), which makes this a situation of inequality.”
“Yet, the opportunity to choose students and teachers is what sets these private schools apart,” Acuña said. “Because of their selectivity, ability to self-govern and the opportunity to operate as a separate entity, they have been successful.”
“That is the difference of excellence,” he said. “We lose those things, we become just another public school.”