When President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, one of his first acts in office was to sign a decree making primary education free for all.
It was part of the Sandinista government’s grand pledge to rollback the “neoliberal policies” of the previous administrations and “restore the right to universal education”—the hallmark of any socialist government (even a free-market, pro-capitalist one).
But five years on, critics claim the Sandinista administration’s approach to education reform has been based more on political posturing than pedagogy.
The Education Ministry has been effective in handing out new backpacks, books, uniforms and school lunches, but more pressing reforms—from improving the quality of education to launching the ambitious “battle for sixth grade”—have been slower to take shape.
Critics are also worried about the politicization of the education system, from hanging Ortega’s propaganda in schools to the Sandinistas’ rather unacademic practice of mobilizing students to skip class to march in the streets like an army of impressionable young apparatchiks.
Some analysts argue the administration isn’t willing to put its money (Venezuelan aid included) where its mouth is. The Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy claims public spending on primary education has decreased dramatically on Ortega’s watch, despite administrative claims to the contrary.
Even the dilapidated condition of many schoolhouses seems to offer a visible reminder of the general entropy afflicting Nicaragua’s education system.
But behind the chalkboard, education officials have been working studiously for the past two years to develop a new mid-term strategic plan for public education. The government has not yet made its strategy public, but international policy experts who helped consult on the plan and were allowed a sneak peak at its final content say it’s technically sound, progressively focused and cause for optimism.
In fact, the World Bank likes the Sandinistas’ education strategy so much that they have agreed to a $25 million credit for primary education to benefit nearly 220,000 elementary school students and 80,000 kids currently outside of the school system. World Bank officials say they are particularly pleased with the strategy’s focus on early education (a program that focuses as much on parents as it does their preschoolers) and teacher training.
The World Bank funding will help the government implement its strategy in 40 municipalities in the rural northern half of the country.
And that’s just the beginning. The government is also negotiating an additional $75 million in education aid from the EU and other international donors, which would give the government unprecedented access to funding for education.
“The goals we have will not only advance public education, it will transform it,” Salvador Vanegas, President Ortega’s special advisor on education, told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We have figured out how far we can get with our own resources, and implemented a strategy to request and secure additional funding.”
Vanegas says the government’s current education budget, around $260 million per annum, will produce a budget gap of $300 million over the next five years. So if the government is able to raise $100 million just in the first trimester of 2012, it will be well on its way to securing the funding it needs to meet its quinquennial strategic goals.
Says Vanegas, “We are already on the path to closing that budget gap and really transforming the education system; and on all levels: pre-school, primary, secondary and technical education.”
Lots to do
Given the dreadful condition of Nicaragua’s public education system, the government has little time to waste implementing its plan. The challenges ahead are monstrous.
According to comparative statistics, Nicaragua’s 45% high school enrollment is among the lowest in the world. In the Western Hemisphere, only Guatemala is in worse shape. Nicaragua is also in the bottom third of the world’s low-income countries, with a dropout rate that puts the country on level with some of the most backwards nations on the planet.
Statistically, youths in war-torn Uganda have a better chance of making it through sixth grade than they do in Nicaragua.
The Sandinistas have had some success improving the retention of students in primary school, lowering the desertion rate from 12% to 8.8% over the past four years. But the situation is grim when education ministry officials make public statements such as, “If we can just get kids to stay in school through fourth grade, they’ll be much more likely to make it to sixth grade without dropping out.”
In Nicaragua, 80% of primary schools are multigrade schools, meaning students of different ages, grades, academic abilities and learning skills are clumped together in the same classroom.
Many rural schools don’t even offer sixth grade, so even students who want to complete a full primary education can’t do so.
In other cases, the school’s problems are even more basic. Vanegas said the government is still in the process of trying to legalize many of the properties on which schools have been built, because their precarious squatter status makes it difficult to invest in needed infrastructure improvements.
“We need to legalize the land where our schools are located so we can advance on the implementation of other projects that we need to do,” Vanegas said.
For other schools, the problems are mostly academic.
“Lamentably, many of the schools in Nicaragua are incomplete and don’t have qualified teachers,” says Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, the World Bank’s director for Central America.
Jaramillo stressed that Nicaragua needs to focus not only on improving the education system’s capacity to handle students, but teachers’ capacity to help students get a meaningful education.
Many rural teachers in Nicaragua—all of whom are appallingly underpaid—are smart and dedicated people with an abundance of goodwill and patience. But many are lacking in basic teacher training.
Meanwhile, youth activists say in many cases it’s the students who are more detrimental to a good education than the teachers. Irving Calero, a youth activist critical of the government, says the ruling party has stuck its tendrils so far into the classrooms that the situation in many Managua schools has become crazy—and the patients are running the bughouse.
“Students arrive to class whenever they want, they do whatever the want, and they leave whenever they want to go participate in party events in the street,” Calero said. “The teachers have no power; the (Sandinista-affiliated) Student Federation has total control over the schools.”
While the challenges are manifold and daunting, World Bank policy experts are encouraged by the fact that Sandinista officials recognize the difficulty of the situation and have finally mapped out a coherent strategic plan to do something about it.
Now the challenge is to put politics aside and get to the nitty gritty of serious education reform.
Nicaragua’s education debate is still heavily laced with political gibble-gabble, but Sandinista authorities are slowly starting to depoliticize their approach to education reform and treat it more as a technical issue, according to Camille Nuamah, Nicaragua’s country representative for the World Bank.
And that, she says, is very encouraging.
Nuamah says Sandinista officials have started to realize that education reform is not an ideological issue, because “there’s no Washington consensus on education.”
“Every country has crappy schools,” said Nuamah, who spent her primary school years in a successful multigrade school in Jamaica. “There’s no ideological divide.”
The challenge facing all governments the world over is to roll up their sleeves to get into the technical matter of reforming schools based on the country’s reality and its needs.
“It’s a challenge to run a system while you are reforming it,” Nuamah said. “You have to fix the ship while keeping it afloat.”
The Sandinista officials have done a good job of fixing the ship below deck, she said. But now they need to explain to the rest of the crew what they’ve done so that all Nicaragua’s sails can point in the same direction and the national education system can actually move forward rather than remain aimlessly adrift on violent seas.
“The government needs to outdoor its strategy,” Nuamah said. “They are still suspicious of private foundations, but they need to include them and lead the discussion on education to coordinate efforts.”
Nuamah says Nicaragua is in a unique position in that it has lots of private foundations, religious groups, charitable organizations and non-governmental groups that all want to help the country’s education system. But until now, everyone has been doing his or her own thing without any coordination or greater plan.
The Sandinista administration, with its new strategic plan, has a great opportunity to lead a national dialogue on education to get everyone pushing in the same direction. But first they have to actually break from tradition and tell people about what they are doing, Nuamah said.
“This government doesn’t sell what they are doing very well; they’re doing stuff behind the scenes,” she said.
Nuamah says the government’s whole communication strategy seems to speak to people on an emotional level rather than an intellectual level. But on the education issue, a little bit of intellectual discourse wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“When the president rambles with music in the background that makes him sound like a Baptist minister, they are doing nothing to make the government look competent,” Nuamah told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “The whole political strategy is emotional; they don’t want to appear competent, even when they are competent.”
The issue of education reform would be a good place to start demonstrating some of that competence, she said.
The government has the lesson plan and a growing pot of funds to make it happen. Now, like a good professor, the Sandinista education officials need to instruct the rest of the class and start assigning homework so Nicaragua can prepare for its future.