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La Educación
Número: (117) I
Año: 1994

Current Trends

Strategies to bring about significant and lasting improvements in the Brazilian educational system must begin with the acknowledgement that the problem is neither a technical matter of policy design and implementation nor one of lack of resources. Rather, the key problem resides in the deeply rooted conflicts between competing interests in Brazilian society. These conflicts can only be resolved in the political arena, with the development of democratic institutions capable of representing and mediating divergent interests in ways consistent with and not subversive of the rights of Brazil’s citizens. The construction of a more democratic society is by nature slow, ambiguous, and ridden with conflict, and its success or failure is entirely beyond the control of planners. Moreover, the federal organization of the Brazilian government means that progress toward the establishment of democratic institutions and attendant policy reforms will occur in different ways and at different rates in various parts of Brazil.

Existing and emerging institutional and political structures thus define the context within which competing groups pursue their interests and within which changes in educational and other policies will take place. In this section of the paper we review recent Brazilian institutional changes as these have affected educational policies and practices.

Democratization, Decentralization, and Innovation

The political opening (abertura) that began at the end of the 1970s has been accompanied by potentially important changes in administrative and political relationships within the educational system. First, educational officials at state and municipio levels have begun to abandon their traditional complaisance with respect to policy direction from MEC and to adopt an increasingly active and critical role in the formulation and implementation of educational policies. The state secretaries have organized themselves into the CONSED while officials at the municipio level are affiliated in increasingly large numbers with the UNDIME. Representatives of these organizations participate in educational policy debates at all levels. These same people and organizations are now beginning to define a policy agenda for state and municipio education systems on a basis increasingly independent from the centralizing interests of MEC.

Second, taking advantage of their newly won autonomy in administration and policy making, many states have undertaken significant changes in administrative and pedagogical practice. Included among the innovations that have been adopted are the extension of the school day (including the introduction of full-day school programs in Leonel Brizola’s Centros Integrados de Educação Pública (CIEPs) and President Collor’s Centros Integrados de Apoio à Criança (CIACs)), and the adoption of the ciclo básico in the early grades.22

Third, freed from their exclusive dependence on MEC, education officials at state and municipio levels have begun to build relationships with other institutions and specifically to enter into direct contact with federal and state legislators. CONSED and UNDIME were important participants in educational debates during the drafting of Brazil’s new constitution, and they remain active in the current debate over a new LDB. Educational policy debates are far more open than they were under the military regime. With their entry into these debates, state and local officials have further increased their administrative autonomy.

Finally, in the search for more efficient and effective procedures, three new administrative practices have been adopted in several states: election of school principals by parents, teachers, and community members; establishment of school councils comprising representatives of teachers, students, and parents; and devolution of day-to-day financial control to the school level. Some states (such as Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Pará) have adopted all three measures. Other states (Mato Grosso and Santa Catarina) have adopted one, and still others (Rio Grande do Sul, Distrito Federal, and Goiás) none.

School principals in most states are now appointed by the State Education Secretary, commonly under the guidance of local politicians. The shift to direct elections has reduced the influence of the Secretary and elected officials in school administration, though at the cost of enhancing the influence of groups associated with teachers and their unions. The net benefits of the shift have yet to be evaluated, but studies have revealed various problems in the relationships between elected principals and personnel in their schools. On the one hand, principals often find themselves politically isolated after their supporters’ initial euphoria has dissipated. On the other hand, principals are obliged to confront the hostile opposition of those who supported other candidates.

The establishment of elected school councils is intended to provide a mechanism for consultation and for the division of responsibility between principals and those who attend or work in their schools. In principle, councils should provide a forum in which administrative decisions and school level policies would be discussed and conflicts mediated. The available information suggests, however, that councils play a far more restricted role. Several states (including Minas Gerais, Paraná, and Pará) have begun to transfer funds directly to schools to cover the costs of minor repairs and other urgent expenditures. Judgments on the legality of this practice differ from state to state. In Paraná, for example, the transfer of public resources to school administrators was found to contravene state laws.

These administrative and policy innovations are emblematic of a new seriousness on the part of some state and local officials in their efforts to come to terms with long-standing educational problems. None of these innovations has been an unequivocal success. However, the acknowledgement of a need for change and the willingness and capacity to experiment with new policies provide some ground for optimism with respect to eventual improvements in Brazil’s educational system.23

Constitutional Changes

One important step in the construction of democratic institutions in Brazil was the promulgation of a new constitution in 1988, which both provided space for policy innovations such as those described above and also established new instruments for the definition and protection of the rights of citizens. Many of the important policy shifts embodied in the constitution have yet to be fully defined in law, but the changes that they entail can already be foreseen.

With respect to decentralization, the new constitution for the first time acknowledges the autonomy of municipal education systems, which are no longer to be regarded as subordinate agencies of state governments. The concession of independence to municipios significantly reduces the power both of MEC and of state governments, while greatly expanding the opportunity for administrative and policy innovation. At the same time, however, by introducing nearly 5000 new actors into education policy debates, it renders the search for more efficient and equitable national policies all the more difficult.

Tax reforms, to be fully implemented by 1993, assign sources of revenue previously controlled by the federal government to state and municipio authorities. In association with constitutional provisions requiring state and local governments to spend 25 percent of their revenues from taxes and transfers on education, the anticipated decentralization of resources should significantly increase the total quantity of resources available to the educational system. In addition, the corresponding reduction in the quantity of resources controlled by federal authorities may be expected to lead to a further decentralization of administrative responsibility, with especially significant gains at the municipio level (Gomes 1988).

A majority of the state constitutions that have been adopted following the approval of the federal constitution have incorporated articles directing that recent education policy experiments including the election of school principals and the establishment of school councils be institutionalized. State laws defining how these new constitutional principles are to be implemented are now being drafted.

Both federal and state constitutions include new legal guidelines to govern the budgeting process. Previously, presidents and governors developed their budgets in consultation with the heads of administrative agencies. Thereafter, budgets were submitted to the legislature for approval. Under the new constitutions, however, a budget resolution defining guidelines for public expenditure must be approved by the legislature prior to the elaboration of a budget by the executive branch. This procedure does allow for broader participation in the definition of budgetary priorities. The procedure remains flawed, however, in the opportunities that it provides for the allocation of resources for specific uses on the basis of criteria rooted in the practice of clientelismo.

Federal and state constitutions also require the elaboration of medium-term educational plans at national and state levels to define policy priorities for the educational system. These plans must be approved by legislators, which provides an additional opportunity for public participation in the debate over educational policies.

The new Brazilian constitution also makes the longstanding right to education actionable (um direito público subjetivo) for the first time by assigning legal responsibility for the provision of educational opportunities to the “relevant public authorities” (Article 208, Paragraphs 1 and 2).24 This change could prove to be the most far reaching of all, if a successful legal strategy can be devised for defining what the citizen’s right to education and the government’s obligation to provide it entail. The dispersion of administrative responsibility within the educational system, however, makes it difficult to determine the relevant public authorities. In addition, the general disregard for “rights” in the Brazilian legal system poses a serious obstacle to successful legal action. No citizen has yet sued to oblige the government to honor her or his right to education.


In themselves, clearly, the changes described above cannot produce solutions to the problems identified in earlier sections of this paper. The changes do, however, mark the establishment of new opportunities for organizations and individuals to contribute to the debate over the increasingly desperate problems of the Brazilian education system. The changes also further open the way to local experimentation and innovation. Given the failure of recent Brazilian governments to assign priority to improving the basic education system, it is at the local level, in the demands of citizens and in the commitment of educators, that the search for solutions must begin.