Venezuela's Plan To Aid Schools Gives Role to Military
When he was elected president of Venezuela two years ago, Hugo Chávez Frías promised a "social revolution" to raise the standard of living for the nation's 24 million citizens, as many as 80 percent of whom are poor.
In the ensuing months, he introduced a new constitution, a restructured Congress, and a modified judicial system. Yet amid those dramatic changes, it is the administration's fledgling proposals to improve the nation's 17,000 public schools and increase educational access and achievement that have been at the center of controversy in the Latin American nation.
The former military leader has called in the troops, literally, to rebuild dilapidated schools and provide leadership in struggling ones. The efforts have opened the schoolhouse doors to hundreds of thousands more children, and brought needed resources to the poorest regions. But they have also fueled fears of a militarization of the schools and a steady deterioration of local control.
In recent weeks, thousands of educators and members of the middle class have marched in protest of Mr. Chávez's plan to increase the central government's supervision of schools, charging that instead of leading to "a deepening of democracy," it will have the opposite effect.
"The president has said he wants education to be the lever of the process of revolution," said Blanca Azpurua, the principal of Valle Abierto School, a private school in Caracas with 300 students. "But we don't really know to what extent he is going to influence politically the methodology in the schools. It is not clear whether it will be for indoctrination or working for liberty."
Approximately one- fifth of the nation's students attend some 6,000 private schools for primary education, according to statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Those schools would also be affected by the education proposals.
At the heart of the discord is the government's National Educational Project, intended to address the country's troubled education system.
Before Mr. Chávez took office, one-tenth or more of the approximately million school-age children were not attending school. Although most children in the country entered 1st grade, only 40 percent made it through the 9th grade, when basic education ends. About one-fifth of students repeated the 1st grade, and up to a third of students did not make it past the 5th grade, according to the Education Ministry.
Fees assessed for students to move beyond certain grade levels, though small in many cases, were beyond the means of many parents.
The project—or PEN, Proyecto Educativo Nacional—proposed by Mr. Chávez and Minister of Education Héctor Navarro Díaz, which addresses such issues as teacher preparation and curriculum, is intended to combat those problems.
"We will enter the new century, and the new millennium, with a defined strategic plan, with the greatest aspiration of educational transformation," according to literature describing the project. "We are sure that after just a short time, we will be harvesting the fruits of such a significant effort. ... We will overcome all the negative resistance to the change ... and [see] a substantial improvement in education. The challenge is immense, but we have laid the way, and we will not rest until we see crowned this great collective effort of the Venezuelan nation."
Mr. Chávez marched last month in a counterprotest, flanked by thousands of supporters of his reforms. "He has the mandate of the poor," said the head of another private school.
Some observers have praised the initiatives. Despite their ideological bent, and a lack of detail as to how they would change classroom instruction, the measures have shone a much-needed spotlight on the nation's educational woes. Nearly 400,000 more students have gained access to schooling as a result of the initiatives, in part because of the elimination of the matriculation fees, according to the government.
But critics say there are signs the government is angling to wrestle more control over the schools. The head of the PEN, for example, is a former guerrilla leader with Marxist beliefs and ties to Cuba. Mr. Chávez has been closely linked to Fidel Castro, who has agreed to send educators to Venezuela to provide professional development for teachers.
A pilot project to expand educational opportunities for the poor has won both praise and widespread criticism. Some 500 "Bolivarian" schools, named for Simón Bolívar, the leader of the Venezuelan independence movement in the early 1800s, have cropped up throughout the country.
Led by active members of the military, as well as civilian educators, the schools provide full-day schooling— a feature uncommon in most public schools—meals and health services, and military classes. The curriculum is infused with nationalistic themes.
A new social studies textbook produced after a government resolution two years ago has been assailed as revisionist doctrine that all but ignores the regimes of the previous 40 years and reflects favorably on Mr. Chávez. And a text on pre- military instruction—a subject the Defense Ministry is proposing as a high school requirement—gives directions for making weapons and grenades and is rife with derogatory commentary on immigrants from other Latin American countries.
Decree 1011, which would give broad powers to the Education Ministry to appoint traveling supervisors to evaluate and punish schools and educators, has drawn the ire of the nation's labor unions, which have asked the Supreme Court to rule on its constitutionality.
In response to the concerns, more than half a dozen education and social organizations banded together to present their own proposal to Congress. That legislative assembly has also weighed in with its own plan. Last month, Mr. Navarro, the education minister, agreed to discuss the others' proposals and indicated they have many similarities with the government's plan.
Some observers say that while some of the government's efforts are troubling, they are beginning to address educational equity for the poor. The discourse, according to Fernando Reimers, an associate professor and director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard University, is healthy and has the potential to fuel real change.
"The positive side," said Mr. Reimers, who was born and raised in that country, "is that there is a lot of debate in Venezuela at the moment around education reform, and that was stimulated because of the projects of the government."
Vol. 20, Issue 26, Page 8