Since returning to power in 2007, President Daniel Ortega has championed education as a priority for his administration and a hallmark of his government’s socialist proclivities.
From his floral pulpit, the president has decreed education free for all, deployed a nationwide literacy campaign, and valiantly declared a “battle for sixth grade”—the equivalent of trench warfare in a country that has one of the highest dropout rates and lowest high school enrollments in the world.
But when it comes to paying the bill for education, the government isn’t making the grade, analysts say.
“The deficit in education spending is not a problem that started with this government, but this government has not changed the tendency of underfunding,” says Sandinista analyst Oscar Rene Vargas. “The situation is stagnant.”
Though the Ortega administration has lobbied the World Bank and EU for outside financing to support its secretive education strategy—a document Sandinista officials have quietly presented to international donors but kept guarded from any public scrutiny—the government is miserly when it comes to opening its own purse strings to pay teachers’ salaries, says economist Adolfo Acevedo, of the Coorindadora Civil public policy activist group.
“The the national salary structure’s bias against teachers is overwhelming,” Acevedo charges.
Not only are Nicaraguan teachers the worst paid in Central America, but they’re also among the worst paid professionals in Nicaragua. In real wage terms, an average public school teacher in Nicaragua earns less than 60% of the average wages for other jobs, and only half of what it costs to provide the canasta basica, a list of 56 basic food and household items needed to support an average family.
“The average teacher is either living in poverty or right on the verge,” Vargas says.
An average teacher in Nicaragua earns around $185-$226 a month, according to estimates by Acevedo and José Antonio Zepeda, president of the National Confederation of Nicaraguan Education Workers (ANDEN).
“Despite the continuous salary increases over the past six years—representing a total of 140% in wage increases—teachers still don’t earn enough to meet the costs of the canasta basica,” Zepeda said.
The Nicaragua Dispatch tried to verify those statistics with the Ministry of Education (MINED), but the taciturn woman in the ministry’s department of public relations said she wasn’t authorized to give out information about teachers’ salaries. The Ministry of Education also ignored written requests for basic information.
According to a comparative study on real purchasing power, economist Acevedo says teachers in Nicaragua earn less than minors, factory workers, construction workers and government functionaries who stand in traffic rotundas mindlessly waving Sandinista flags at passing cars. The average teacher earns only half as much as a market vendor.
“The glass ceiling for the quality of education is the quality of teachers. And there is no way to attract better and more qualified teachers to the profession if people can earn twice as much doing just about any other job,” Acevedo said.
President Ortega, whose banks nearly $500 million a year in Venezuelan aid for doing his job, recently thanked teachers for their “vocation for service.” But once again, the Ortega government is not offering teachers much in the way of remunerative love in the 2012 budget, which was hurried through National Assembly earlier this month by the Sandinista supermajority.
“The salary increase projected for teachers in 2012 is 9%, but inflation is projected to be 7.95%. So if the projections are right, teachers’ real increase in salary will only be 1.05%,” Acevedo says. “At that rate of growth, teachers will need to wait 65 years for their salaries to catch up with the average national salary.”
Acevedo argues that the problem is not lack of funding, rather how the government is spending its money. For example, in the 2012 budget the government earmarked $111 million—double what it spent last year—on paying down the internal debt. At the same time, this year’s budget will increase education spending by only $20 million, which means in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), education spending will be the same as it was last year: 3.7%.
That’s only half of what the country should be spending on education.
“The criticism of (former President Enrique) Bolaños was that his government prioritized paying the debt over social spending programs. And now it’s the same with Ortega,” Acevedo told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
“The country needs to establish its priorities,” the economist urged.
Poor quality of education
Not surprisingly, Nicaragua’s cash-strapped school system is delivering a poor quality of education. Only 45% of students who enter primary school go on to high school, making Nicaragua’s secondary-school enrollment among the lowest in the world.
And many of those who make it to high school apparently aren’t learning much more than those who drop out.
Responding to criticism that Nicaragua’s high schools only have books to cover 55% of the students, the Ministry of Education says the problem is they don’t have the $6 million needed to print new text books. The ministry hopes the funding will become available by the end of the year.
In the meantime, an alarming number of students are coasting through school without learning much. According to recent university entrance exams, only 10% of students pass the basic math requirements, and 20% pass the Spanish-language requirement.
The situation is so bad that the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León last year lowered the passing grade on its entrance exam to 54% out of 100, which even on a generous grading scale should still be considered an F. Even then, only 68% of the high school graduates passed.
Then again, Nicaraguan students are mostly unfamiliar with competitive test-taking. Nicaragua performed so poorly in worldwide standardized testing that the country stopped participating in the global testing several years ago.
“There is a lot of government propaganda about education, but the quality of education in Nicaragua still leaves a lot to be desired,” says Carlos Tünnermann, the first Sandinista government’s minister of education and a former member of the UNESCO Director-General’s Advisory Group for Higher Education in Latin America.