Schools in Argentina Reeling From Collapse of Economy

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Over the past decade, Argentina has gradually retooled its education system, largely to generate more opportunities and enhance school quality in the poorest sectors of Latin America's second-largest country.

In 1993, the Argentine government raised the number of years of compulsory education from seven to 10 and laid down a plan to relinquish federal control over schools. It also launched a multimillion-dollar effort to upgrade materials and services for its neediest learners.

But when Argentina's economy—after a long, slow slide—collapsed suddenly at the end of last year, the hope and promise born of those efforts abruptly ended. Today, many educators there wonder if schools will even open next month to begin the new academic year.

Among the many crises spawned by the collapse are urgent threats of a walkout by Argentina's roughly 655,000 teachers, and a looming federal budget that virtually guarantees major cuts in all areas, including schools.

If schools do open on time, it remains to be seen just how seriously funding for supplies, salaries, and social services will be affected—not to mention how the crisis has shaken teacher morale. After all, many teachers ended the 2001 school year in December on strike over unpaid wages, and any savings they may have banked likely have been chopped in half as a result of the recently adjusted value of the Argentine peso.

"We are all waiting for the recovery, but the recovery is not here yet," Juan José Llach, Argentina's education minister from 1999 to 2000 said in a telephone interview. "I foresee a year with a lot of lost school days at the beginning of the school year, perhaps province by province, because of problems with payments of salaries."

Mr. Llach, who now directs the economics department at the University of Austral in Buenos Aires, pointed out that federal tax collections were down in December by 28 percent compared with the same time the previous year. That is the revenue, he explained, that the federal government now funnels to the nation's 23 provinces and independent Buenos Aires to pay for local government services, including schooling for some 9 million public school students.

"Perhaps January will be better, like 20 percent [below last year]," he continued. "Anyway, it's a disaster, as you can imagine."

Carpa Blanca

Many international observers have been stunned by the sudden economic plunge in Argentina, which was partly the result of an overvalued monetary system that damaged the economy by making domestic goods too expensive outside the country. Now, working-class Argentines— including many educators—are picking up the pieces.

One of the most pressing issues for teachers is the cutoff of a federal fund that was established in 1999 to supplement annual teachers' salaries, which averaged between $7,000 and $8,000 a year before the federal bonus. From that extra pot of money, teachers have received roughly another $720, or about a month's salary.

Even before the free-fall in the nation's economy, which triggered lingering and sometimes violent protests, worsening revenue problems prompted the federal government in Buenos Aires to cancel payments of the bonuses for six months last year. In addition, no money has been set aside yet for the bonuses this year.

The failure of the government to make good on its promise is at the heart of the threatened strike by the Confederation of Education Workers of Argentina, known as CTERA, the national union that represents various local labor groups.

What's more, the union is threatening to resurrect the "Carpa Blanca," a huge, white tent that teachers built in 1997. Within the tent, groups of teachers fasted for 20 days at a time as part of a two-year protest for equitable salaries and other changes in education across the country. The tent is a symbolic rallying point for Argentine teachers.

Last week, union and government leaders were attempting to negotiate a way out of the strike.

María Carmen del Fiejoó Docampo, the vice minister of education, said a national teachers' strike would be a tough public relations sell to a country in which everyone has been hit hard.

"One sector may try to advance a cause, but it must convince the rest of the society that their needs are the highest," she said.

According to Ms. Docampo, the Education Ministry is negotiating a financial-aid package with the international banking community that could help cover the costs of the teacher supplement, as well as school materials and other services for needy students.

"Parents are waiting till March so that their children will be in a situation that is safe and protected," she said. "The schools are one place where students are safe and cared for."

Officials from the World Bank and other international lending institutions and aid groups say they want to help Argentina, but point out that the situation is tremendously complex. Any financing arranged at the national level, for example, must include some formula for making sure the aid is distributed equally across the local political jurisdictions. Loans, the officials say, must come with administrative reforms as well. And it's not clear if a deal can be done in time to help schools open next month.

"There are a number of structural issues that are important, concerns about quality and efficiency of education," said Ariel Fiszbein, who directs the World Bank's human-development sector for several South American countries, including Argentina. "The crisis is putting these on the table, as well as the capacity of provinces to run the school systems as revenues are falling sharply."

Local Concerns

Much like his peers across the vast country, Hector De Luca is more concerned than ever about the future of the school he oversees in the working-class community of Temperley, some 50 miles outside the city of Buenos Aires.

Argentina, a nation of 38 million people with a rich history of European emigration, has been one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America. Living mostly in or near the country's urban areas, most Argentines have become accustomed in recent years to a predictably middle-class existence.

Mr. De Luca said that security has been snatched away.

A 24-year veteran of education, he currently directs a vocational school that serves 1,100 students, ranging in age from 15 to 18, who study electronics, auto mechanics, or industrial motors.

Mr. De Luca is not sure how his school will be hit the hardest when it opens—if it opens—next month.

On the one hand, his provincial government is facing a multimillion-dollar deficit, and because 34 percent of its budget goes to schools, Mr. De Luca is certain his budget will be cut. If the direst estimates come true, he could lose up to 50 percent of his budget.

"I already ask local electricians and parents to do work on my school," he said. "I'm not sure what else they can do."

He also fears that many parents will be unable to pay bus fares, or the traditional monthly school fees, which are known across Argentina as collaborations. Those voluntary, yet expected, payments from parents help pay for school repairs, books, and other needs when regular funding falls short. Parents typically manage the funds.

"It's the only way to have school supplies for students," Mr. De Luca said. "But these students won't be able to pay. This is the group that is the poorest and most weighted down with problems."

Financial problems are not the only ones that concern him. Morale. Home life. Financial pressure on parents. With an official national unemployment rate of 20 percent before the collapse, the new troubles will show up, somehow, in the schools, he predicts.

"The crisis not only affects education, but the lives of children and their families— it involves the schools because we are part of the community," Mr. De Luca said.

Despite his best efforts to believe that teachers will put their own concerns aside to be there for the school's children, his own hardships are not far below the surface.

Since last summer, Mr. De Luca has been paid in bonds by a cash-strapped local government. These bonos can be used only in the province where he lives. He can buy food and commodities in local markets with the bonds, but they are useless to pay credit card balances and some other debts.

"We feel," said Mr. De Luca, who is married to a teacher and has two children, "like we are prisoners of our province."

Vol. 21, Issue 22, Page 8

Published in Print: February 13, 2002, as Schools in Argentina Reeling From Collapse of Economy
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