NicaNotes: Education: A Right Recuperated

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An El Nuevo Diario article on Feb. 6 reported that as of Feb. 1, over 1.5 million students were registered for public school as the new school year is about to start. The article estimated there would be 1.7 million students in the public school system by the end of February.

I thought back to the state of education in Nicaragua ten years ago when Daniel Ortega received the presidential sash and, as his first act, declared an end to school fees. Seventeen years of neoliberal governments, since the Sandinista electoral defeat in 1990, had decimated the public school system. Under IMF structural adjustment prescriptions, which presidents Chamorro, Aleman, and Bolaños followed slavishly, money was withheld from maintenance and infrastructure, teachers were the lowest paid in Central America, and parents had to pay monthly fees plus fees for school uniforms, tests, janitorial services, certificates of grade completion, and more.

If memory serves, there were about 700,000 children in school in 2006. Many more were in the streets, laboring in the fields, working in the informal economy to help their family survive. When the school doors opened in February 2007, over 100,000 children who hadn’t been previously enrolled showed up. There weren’t enough classrooms. There weren’t enough desks. There sure weren’t enough teachers! It was a year of improvisation and I’m sure it is not a year that any professional teacher would ever want to repeat!

The return of the Sandinista government meant a return of the revolutionary ideals that said every person had the right to education. Health care is a right. Dignified housing is a right. Proper nutrition is a right. The new government set about restoring the rights that the Nicaraguan people had won with so much blood when they overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. Rights that were only partially fulfilled during the revolutionary years because so much of the national treasure – material and human – was diverted to fighting the Contra War imposed by the government of the United States.

The government of President Daniel Ortega knew it wasn’t enough just to make education free. They had to build schools. They had to repair classrooms. They had to buy a massive number of desks, and books. And they set about doing that. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, but each year it has increased the money spent on education – on the physical plant, on the students, and on teacher pay and training.

But even that wasn’t enough. Parents couldn’t send their children to school if they had no clothes, if they could not afford a pencil and a notebook, if the child’s labor was needed for the family to eat.

So like all of the brilliant poverty reduction programs implemented since the Sandinistas returned to office, what became known as the Fight for the Sixth Grade was an integrated program. (Fight for the Sixth Grade was a program to achieve at least a sixth grade education level not just for every child, but for every Nicaraguan, so adult education programs also became part of the mix.)

Rhey initiated a government program to provide uniforms for the poorest of the poor. The government provided a back pack stuffed with school supply necessities at the beginning of the year. But probably the greatest single thing the government did to keep the children in school was the school meal program. (In some schools it’s breakfast; in others lunch).

And what a brilliant and multi-level program it is. Not only does it feed the kids, but it is also a component of a revitalized peasant agricultural sector. Neoliberalism had no place in its plans for peasant agriculture, and yet that sector represented historically something like 60% of GDP. With the school lunch program, small farmers had a guaranteed market through the government for their basic subsistence crops like beans, corn, and rice. Many poor families sent their kids to school just so they could get one decent meal a day.

The school meal program was already a community affair with volunteers preparing the meals for students, but then the government took it another step farther. They began providing the inputs and training for school gardens including vegetables and fruit trees. Even more of the community got involved and part of each child’s education became learning how to grow the food they ate.

One historical nutritional weakness in Nicaragua has been a very conservative diet relying heavily on beans, rice, and corn tortillas. The really poor often had to get by on just tortilla with salt. (Inspiration for the name of the excellent political analysis website tortillaconsal.com.) Through the school gardens, students and their parents were exposed to fruits, leafy vegetables and root crops that they didn’t normally eat – and they were taught how to prepare delicious and varied meals.

I’m overusing the word brilliant in this essay, but isn’t that brilliant? How many times have foreign do-gooders gone into communities with the determination that they were going to show them how to eat better. How many of those community gardens were still maintained a year after the foreigners left? Not so with the school gardens. The entire community can see the benefits. The approach allowed the concept of a varied diet to grow organically into the community consciousness, not to be grafted on from the outside and then allowed to wither away.

with other programs, the Sandinista government has not forgotten the rural areas of the country, unlike all the governments that preceded them. They have focused on building and renovating rural schools, and in 2016, the Institute of National Technology (INATEC) opened 40 more technology centers in rural areas, adding to the 40 it had already set up. Government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo said that they were “fully furnished technology centers, equipped with computers and their accessories, to develop computer courses in the countryside.”  She added that the centers would contribute to the eradication of rural poverty. Telemaco Talavera, President of the National Council of Universities (CNU), noted that in recent years the number of Nicaraguan graduates in technical careers has grown from 17,000 to 27,000.

All this is not to say that Nicaragua has developed the nirvana of educational systems. Don’t pull your kids out of school and ship them to Nicaragua just yet. Enrollment is in the mid-90th percentile, but retention is still a struggle. A lot of money has been spent on building and repairing schools and classrooms, but overcrowding and class size is still a problem. Curriculum reforms have been put in place but most teachers were taught in the recitation and regurgitation old-style of education so change comes slowly.

But oh my. Isn’t it better to have 1.5 million students in school than to have 700,000? Isn’t it better to have a commitment to universal, free education than to say that poor people, especially the rural poor, do not need an education? I think the answer is a resounding yes. The current government may not be revolutionary enough for some of us in the privileged North. But don’t try to tell me that awakening the mind of a child is not a revolutionary act. Because without that first step, none of the subsequent steps are possible.


BRIEFS

  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said the Nicaragua government has a strong commitment to democracy and the rule of law. “The constructive dialogue between Nicaragua and the OAS is moving ahead. We will sign a three year Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen the democratic system and the rule of law, as well as to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections,” he said.  El Nuevo Diario reported final election turn-out figures of 63%. A poll of non-voters determined that they didn’t vote either because they “didn’t like the candidates” or “because elections don’t change anything.” (Nicaragua News, Jan. 30; El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 1)
  • Presidential advisor Orlando Núñez, reported that the government will not allow Uber to enter the country so as to avoid conflicts with the guild of taxi drivers. In return he asked transport cooperatives to improve the service they offer. “There is no provision to open the doors to Uber. They (the taxi drivers) are worried that Uber can enter Nicaragua and we are worried because it can generate a conflict. What we tell the carriers is that in exchange for us preventing the entry of Uber, they have to improve their service to the population,” said Núñez. (El Nuevo Diario, Jan. 31)
  • Nicaragua Army Chief, Gen. Julio César Avilés, announced that the Ecological Battalion is strengthening the protection of forestry resources nationwide. “We have established five new Departments of the Ecological Battalion on the Nicaragua Caribbean Coast and in the northern part of the country. The goal is to provide greater protection of our natural resources, particularly our forests,” he said. (Nicaragua News, Feb. 3)