Impoverished teachers, poor schools

The Sandinistas’ claim to support education is not reflected in the budget, experts claim

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.

Head of the Class (GRAPHOS Producciones)

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.


  • Darrell Bushnell

    Interesting! Almost the same arguments you hear back in the states. One side saying teachers are underpaid, schools don’t have enough resources, too many students per teacher, etc. Other side saying yes but they work only 5 days a week, usually only a 1/2 day and long summer vacations,etc.

    My lowly opinion is that the two major issues are that families do not value education in great part due to the lack of jobs, my neighbors here in Nicaragua with a college degree cannot find work either. But I think the major issue is the lack of books, the Granada schools have very few and the rural schools have fewer. Regardless of the quantity or quality of teachers a student with a book can still learn. But books are expensive!

    Now that we are in the age of eBooks we should be able to provide Kindles or Nooks to every student. 1,000,000 Kindles would cost only $79,000,000. A Kindle or equivalent eReader can hold all the books they would ever need for all 12 years of school. But then we need to find publishers willing to provide the textbooks on the eReader at a low cost.

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  • Teaching family

    The Ministry of Education failed to mention that about 2-3 years ago the Minister of Education absconded with hundreds of thousand of dollars donated for buying textbooks, went to live in Paris and was then appointed as Nicaragua’s representative to an international organization dedicated to the welfare of children. This, after a big buildup from the government on how the textbooks were coming. Last year teachers were told they would at least get a textbook to teach from. Didn’t happen.

    As for teachers having it “easy”, that is just misinformation, bias or ignorance. The teachers I know in Nicaragua and the US spend half days IN CLASS and then spend another half day or MORE doing lesson plans, grading papers, sponsoring extracurricular activities, meeting with parents, doing record keeping, going to required seminars and doing the continuing education required to keep their certifications.They either have their salary spread out over 12 months or they have to get another job during summer “vacation.”

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  • Nicagringo

    I find this article and comments biased but understandable because there is no plan that has been articulated to the media. The government seems to be executing their plans in other sectors quite well, so I have faith they have a plan for education and will reveal it when fully ready.

    • Julio

      You are a buffoon, sir.

      • Ezmar


        • Ezmar

          My name is Ezmar.

          • Ezmar

            My uncle is the king. He has a cat. I really like that cat.

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  • Amie

    Thanks for such an interesting article. Any chance you could share the citations for the 3 statistics in the section “Poor Quality of Education” – I would love to learn more.