|When President Daniel Ortega took office in January 2007, his first act was to eliminate school fees. Thus began a process to recover the right to a public school education based on equality and quality from 17 years of neoliberal neglect. US and international financial institution-imposed structural adjustment policies required school fees, pricing education out of reach for tens of thousands of Nicaraguan families. School facilities fell into dangerous disrepair as neoliberal governments prioritized international debt payments. Free education returned in 2007 and is enshrined in the National Plan for Human Development 2012-2016.
According to a newly released government report, over 1.6 million students were enrolled in the nation’s public, private, and subsidized schools in 2013 from pre-school through secondary and including special education and teacher training. That was an 11% increase over 2012. Each year since 2007 has seen increases in the number of students enrolled. Over 90% have remained in school. [US dropout rate in 2011 was 11%.] The number of children enrolled in preschool increased 10.24% from 2006 to 2013, increasing the total number of 3-5 year olds in school to 59.3% of the population. This past year, the Sandinista government implemented an early education program (birth to 3) with the Love Program for Youngest Children. Love Program is an inter-agency initiative including the ministries of Health and Education along with the Ministry of Family, Adolescents, and Children. It includes home visits to the homes of children up to six years old by community educators and teachers to help provide early stimulation and skills in preparation for the first grade.
In 2013, 92% of primary school children completed the school year, an increase of over five points from 2006, and 91% advanced to the next grade. [It is important to understand that these advances also include a much higher percentage of the school age population than in the 1990-2006 neoliberal period.] Over half a million students enrolled in secondary schools in 2013, a whopping 19.2% increase over 2006. Two thirds of secondary students were in regular schools and the remainder in Youth and Adult Secondary classes. 88% in regular secondary schools completed the school year, an increase of 7.9%. The percentage of young people in school has increased with 71% of secondary age youth now enrolled and attending school. These gains were achieved by prioritizing placement of teachers in rural schools and implementation of the Person, Family, and Community education model. Over 129,000 poor performing students are benefiting from the Solidarity Action Plan which involves over 18,000 teachers and over 83,000 student tutors. This program is helping 69% of academic underachievers. Special education classes finished 2013 with all 2,946 students completing the school year; an outstanding record of success. An additional 11,570 students with special needs were enrolled in regular classes.
The National Literacy Campaign continued with 53,283 people gaining literacy in 2013 in 13,519 locations involving 28,750 young volunteers. Over 103,000 youth and adults also completed continuing education courses in 2013 aimed at giving them the reading, writing and arithmetic skills needed to enter the workforce. Teacher training is also an important priority of the government’s education plan, both to turn out better trained new teachers and to improve the skills of those already teaching. 37,130 new and experienced teachers received further education and training in 2013. Six hundred new teaching positions were opened and teachers received an 11% raise.
The government’s education policies for 2012-2016 boil down to the achievement of free, universal education for both boys and girls as well as adults, seeing it as a human right to a quality education including adequate infrastructure for learning. Whereas US education policies focus on testing and economic punishment of under-performing schools and teachers, Nicaragua’s policies focus on Solidarity Programs to remove the impediments to learning. Chief among them is the school meal program which guarantees a good meal each day for each student. In urban poor neighborhoods and rural areas where food security is a major issue, the school meal program and the school garden program provide major incentives for families to keep their children in class.
Other solidarity programs include supportive educational packages (uniforms, backpacks, school supplies) solidarity bonus for promotion (graduation incentive), textbooks, and dignified school environments (infrastructure repair and improvement). The government provided 153,662,275 school meals in 2013 serving 1,037,539 students constituting 100% coverage of enrolled students. Meals were supplemented by 1,410 school gardens in 2013 maintained by parents organized into Committees of School Nutrition.
Supportive Education Packets were given to 404,400 poor students, up from a quarter million in 2012. Primary school children received 367,688 pairs of shoes; more than double that of previous years. For the third year in a row, 53,712 students received economic rewards for graduating. Teachers also received 790,721 “Christian, Socialist, and Solidarity Salary Supplements” in 2013 which are financed from preferential Venezuelan oil financing. Nearly a quarter million students benefitted from infrastructure improvements to 1,142 schools in cooperation with mayors, Councils of Citizen Power, youth volunteers, and community participation. This included the construction of 12 new learning centers, construction and repair of students’ and teachers’ desks, and installation of white boards.
The main challenges as reported by the government are to guarantee the right to free, universal, quality education with fair teacher pay in balance with other public spending priorities, to promote training and educational improvement at all levels. The government is also challenging itself to improve school environments and equipment while raising the educational level of teachers and increasing coverage of rural areas. The government aims to win “the battle for the sixth grade” of universal graduation from sixth grade by 2015 and to forge ahead with “the battle for the ninth grade.” Finally the government plans to increase educational opportunities on the Caribbean Coast with respect for culture, languages, and customs.
(Radio La Primerisima, June 25)