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La Educación
Número: (114) I
Año: 1993

Brazilian Educational Reforms and Decentralization

Despite the fact that education has long been recognized as a priority area in plans for the modernization of Brazilian society, Brazil is no exception in the Latin American struggle to provide education for all its citizens. Although 90 percent of the school-aged population has access to education, educational attainment is considered to be low.

Following the Latin American pattern, Brazilian education has a long history of educational reforms; all of which have attempted to change previous educational models in order to reach efficiency and effectiveness within the sector. Such reforms have been designed predominantly to increase educational opportunities for those from the lower income classes, as well as to improve efficiency and effectiveness of schooling.

The first Brazilian ten-year plan for education was formulated in 1967, and it brought about a massive expansion of enrollments, especially in private secondary and higher education. Investment in education rose considerably through 1973, but in real terms it had been steadily declining since that period. The reduction in spending occurred in spite of the fact that the 1971 Education Law extended the length of compulsory schooling from four to eight years. However, in the Brazilian case, any discussion of economic growth and educational expansion has to be viewed against the background of enormous regional and social disparities. There are marked and striking differences between urban and rural areas as well as between regions of the country (Ribeiro, 1990).

Although figures from Grosh’s study (1990) show that Brazil is among those three countries in the region (Brazil, Bolivia and Costa Rica) that have increased efficiency in education in the last decade, problems of equity of educational opportunities and quality within the Brazilian regions are far from being solved. The mean education of the Brazilian population is 4.5 years of schooling, and 60 percent of the population have completed four years or less of schooling. Access to primary school is close to universal in Brazil today; but repetition and dropout rates are among the worst in Latin America, and two-thirds of the children do not complete the primary school cycle.5 Conditions are worse in some areas of the country, especially in the Northeast and Northern regions.  On several occasions, and in different forms, centralization and excessive bureaucracy have been blamed for the education system’s weak performance.

Frequent debates concerning educational reforms regarding decentralization of the education system have taken place among liberal and conservative groups, not only among educators, but also among representatives of the whole society. The strong centralization defended and applied by the military governments was (and still is) viewed as a form of obstructing local initiatives and improving mass education, as well as a form of weakening its power as a tool for individual and social development. The military period was marked by economic and technological development. For almost three decades (between 1960 and 1987), the Brazilian average annual growth rate was an impressive 6.6 percent (The World Development Report, 1991). The so-called “miracle years,” which coincided with the military dictatorship, were preceded and accompanied by economic reforms. The economic stability resulted, as expected, in an expansion of educational opportunities. Nevertheless, expansion of educational opportunities was not followed by administrative measures to guarantee the quality of educational services. A decrease in quality is particularly noted as a result of a lack of freedom to debate educational and social issues. This democratic practice was forbidden during the military regime. For many educators who were without freedom of expression and lacked financial support, the quality of education provided was expected to decrease. However, Cunha (1988) says that, in actuality, the impoverishment of the elementary and secondary education in Brazil was not necessarily caused by the type of process initiated during the military regime, but was considerably accelerated during that time due to economic policies implemented by the militaries. On the other hand, based on the high rate of enrollment expressed in Brazilian educational figures, Paul Singer (1988) contradicts the idea of the so-called crisis in the Brazilian education. According to Singer, never in Brazil have so many students attended school. However, in spite of the high rate of enrollments, in 1989 there were about 7.5 million students out of school in the 7-14 age population group, and the system’s internal efficiency was, and still is, low according to educational developmental indicators.

In Defense of the Brazilian Public Schools

Parallel to the economic crisis and its impact on education, the great educational debate in Brazil revolves around the standards of the public schools that have decreased in the last decades. In the past years, public schools have had a reputation of being of low quality. What followed was the expansion of enrollments as the schools incorporated a considerable number of students from lower income levels. Changes in the economic and social situation of the country have also been responsible for changes in the portfolio of the teaching force, mainly at the primary level. As a result of the educational crisis in the country, the best human resources—teachers and students—leave the public sector thereby inducing the exodus of middle class students from the public schools. On the one hand, one could consider that the exodus of middle class students makes more room in the public schools for low-income level students. Yet on the other hand, this phenomenon may represent a decrease in the quality of education. Students belonging to the bottom level of the social structure have fewer means of pressuring schools and governments to enhance the quality of the educational services provided. Thus, they are unable to contribute to the process of change and improvement of schooling. Additionally, schools do very little to include and prepare parents from low segments of society to participate not only in the school decision-making process, but also in the individual’s and country’s effort to develop. This particular feature of the Brazilian educational system should be reversed and schools should give better quality education to all students independent of their socio-economic class.

Together with the democratic movements that followed the political transition from the military regime to civil government, a nationwide movement in defense of the quality of public schools was organized. This movement, initiated in the end of the 1980s, aims at defending compulsory and free high-quality public schools, and could be considered the most important effort toward improvements in education to have occurred in the last two decades. It started as a grass-roots movement but soon involved all different educational groups, including top level educators. This movement can also be considered a strong mechanism in enhancing the democratic process itself. Originally, education through this process was started as a part of the social movement for democracy as well as to raise very important issues that would encourage, in the medium and long term, a truly democratic society. In the defense of means for pursuing better education, the movement called for autonomy at the school level as a means for enhancing quality of education. Parallel to the movement in defense of better public schools and autonomy of schools, the idea of decentralizing the school municipal system was also debated in spite of the divergent positions presented by representatives of both movements regarding the motivations for decentralization.

Decentralization at the Municipal Level

As the level of education in Brazil is not commensurate with its levels of economic development, centralization has often been accused of being responsible for educational inefficiency, while decentralization is offered as a possible solution to that problem. Since the 1971 educational reform (Educational Law 5692/71), the Brazilian education system has been gradually shifting the responsibility for delivering and managing education at the primary level from the central government (federal level) to the states and municipalities.

The reform movement towards decentralization of the school system at the municipal level has been defended by several educational groups but has been rejected by others. Using the redistribution of power and efficiency arguments, those in favor of municipalities being more involved in education at the primary level assert that administrators at the local level are much more aware of the educational demands and needs of their students, and are thus better able to respond to their needs (Prawda, 1992; Cheema and Rondinelli, 1983). Recent studies developed by the Ministry of Education regarding students’ learning achievement demonstrate that municipal schools are more cost-effective; thus supporting the defense of decentralization as a more cost-effective solution (Ministry of Education Report, 1988). Those in favor of centralization as a guarantee of quality argue that the majority of Brazilian municipalities do not have the managerial capacity or capability to carry out this responsibility. They point out that the lack of economical and administrative means in the municipalities, added to the minimal qualified human resources, cause curricular, financial, and other distortions which pave the way to embezzlement and favoritism (Velloso and Carvalho, 1990) and jeopardize the nation’s pursuit of quality of education.

The ideas defended by the decentralization movement are not new; they have led to strident debates among policy makers and in the National Congress on different occasions, most notably during the preparation of the new Brazilian Constitution in 1988. In the 1950s, Brazilian educators already supported the idea of an educational system comprised of local schools which would be administered by the municipal government and funded by municipal resources with supplementary federal and state funds. The idea of the decentralization of governance and management of the primary education system to the municipalities was again discussed during the debates surrounding the 1971 Brazilian National  Educational Law  (Law 5692/71).  At the time, problems of educational management at the municipal level received special attention. In accordance with the 1971 National Educational Law, the Ministry of Education established a program to improve the capability for delivering basic education in municipalities.  At the time, most municipalities were solely responsible for providing education in the rural areas. In the urban areas, the overlapping of responsibility between states and municipalities in the provision of primary education persisted.

Currently, the 1988 Brazilian Constitution is the major instrument of decentralization through which the independence of municipal school systems from the control of the states was recognized.6 Furthermore, under the Constitution the control of public financial resources was decentralized and the power of the federal government was reduced by increasing the tax entitlement of the state and municipal governments. Together with provisions requiring state and municipal governments to spend 25 percent of their tax revenues for educational purposes (1988 Brazilian Constitution, Art. 212), this change was intended to significantly increase the funds available for education, especially at the municipal level. However, the Constitution neither established a clear division of responsibilities over primary education between the states and the municipalities, nor addressed the problem of regional and intra-regional disparities in education.

Plank’s study asserts that the possibility of expansion and improvement in Brazilian social services has been subverted by the increasing turmoil in the Brazilian economy attributable to both the burden of external debt and economic mismanagement. Changes regarding educational finance at the local level are likely to increase, rather than decrease, inequalities in the Brazilian educational system (Plank, 1989). The author believes that together with the decentralization of the taxing authority proposed by the Constitution, the assertion of a more active role in governance and policy-making by state and local authorities could lead to significant educational improvements in some parts of the country. Nevertheless, the success of efforts to improve student achievement by increasing the effectiveness of educational inputs and improving the quality of teaching will depend critically on the strength of the managerial and institutional capacity of a given educational system (Lockheed and Vespoor, 1990). This means that financial resources should be made available and should be coupled with a managerial and institutional capacity to implement adequate educational policies. This is a very critical factor to be considered regarding the decentralization efforts of education in Brazil, as the weak capability of the majority of the 4,390 Brazilian municipalities is well known. At present, with very few exceptions, states compete with the municipal level regarding the provision of primary education rather than preparing for the development of the major functions implied by the Constitution regarding education, such as responsibility for education policy—which implies coordination of municipal and state systems—and technical assistance to strengthen the municipal school systems. Regarding issues of cost-effectiveness and financing of education, many lessons can be learned from international experiences and could be applied to the Latin American context. Mingat and Tan’s study (1989) in Asian countries suggests that educational development clearly depends on policy choices within the sector, even though demographic constraints remain a serious impediment. The authors stress that the way the educational system is organized and financed is important. These attributes affect the educational system’s efficiency, and therefore its costliness, which, in turn, determines the volume of human capital formation achievable for a given constraint in the public sector. The authors consider that their findings in the study of the Asian countries calls for a greater willingness to explore and adopt (at least within the context of long-term planning) desirable shifts in policies that are sometimes not even considered, the quick assumptions being that domestic conditions do not support those shifts. As expected, those shifts require political and economic commitment on the part of educational authorities to make educational reforms effective.

To what extent the reforms enforced by the 1988 Brazilian Constitution with the goal of increasing the states’ and municipalities’ participation in the decision-making process of educational policies will lead to improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the educational system is one among several questions in the current decentralization debate. Particularly in Brazil, there is a lack of studies on school quality, and on problems of school administration, management, and educational system organizational arrangements that could support policies and reforms in the sector. Particularly in the Brazilian case, it remains to be seen if decentralization at the municipal level improves school access to primary education as well as effectiveness or quality of education. The extent to which decentralization of primary education at the municipal level will be responsible for improvements in basic education seems to be related to the level of technical and financial support provided by the federal and state governments.

Universal primary education is the major objective in the agenda for reform of the present government. The municipalities are expected to increasingly support this agenda by providing educational services at the pre-school and primary level. Unless key actions are in place regarding financial, technical, and administrative support to the municipal school systems, the envisioned educational reforms will not succeed.