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La Educación
Número: (117) I
Año: 1994

Policy Objectives and Policy Instruments

Political conflicts over educational objectives occur only when the interests of clearly defined and politically influential groups are directly threatened, as in the debate over “free” university education. In general, however, the most contentious educational issues have emerged elsewhere, in the struggle to control the means of policy implementation and the distribution of educational resources. Three of these policy debates have been of particular importance: the appropriate location of administrative and financial responsibility for schools, especially at the primary level; the status of regional differences in the effort to reduce educational inequalities; and the role of private schools in the educational system. These debates have animated the discussion of Brazilian educational policy for six decades, and the issues raised remain unresolved.

Administrative Decentralization

Conflicts between advocates of centralized and decentralized administration are virtually inevitable in a large and heterogeneous country, and such conflicts have a long history in Brazil. The relatively strong central authority of the Empire was displaced in 1891 by the federalism of the First Republic, under which most important administrative and political powers were delegated to the states (Souza 1986). On the basis of an explicitly nationalist and authoritarian ideology, the Vargas dictatorship of the 1930s and 1940s established an extensive administrative apparatus that asserted central control over virtually all areas of public policy. The military regime that governed Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s further centralized administrative authority. This regime also significantly increased the share of public revenues controlled by the federal government. In contrast, the Brazilian constitution of 1988 (similar to those of 1934 and 1946) includes a variety of measures aimed at delegating administrative and financial power to states and municipios.

Conflict between advocates of centralization and decentralization has marked the educational system, as well. A Ministry of Education, Post, and Telegraphs established by the new Republican government was shortly disbanded. In 1911 full autonomy in the establishment, maintenance, and governance of schools was vested in state, local, and private authorities (Romanelli 1978). The centralization of administrative and financial authority that began under Vargas (and continued, somewhat ambivalently, under the elected governments of 1946-1964) was accelerated by the military regime, but there are signs that it may be reversed under the new constitution (Campello e Souza 1983; Câmara dos Deputados 1990).

Steady progress toward centralization in the educational system has been opposed at virtually every turn by advocates of decentralization and local control. The 1932 manifesto of the Pioneiros da Educação Nova called for flexibility, diversity, and the delegation of administrative and financial control to states and municipios (Azevedo 1932). In keeping with the views of the Pioneiros, the constitution of 1934 called for the states to organize their own school systems under the general guidance of the federal government, as did the democratic constitution of 1946 and the first version of the LDB in 1948. Thus far, however, the political and administrative advantages of centralized control have proven stronger than legal mandates to decentralize power and resources.

The variety of interests at stake precludes an easy summary of the terms of the debate over the distribution of administrative resources and responsibilities, or even of the identities of the protagonists. In the debate over the LDB, for example, the proponents of decentralization included a variety of “progressives,” who saw the policy as an inevitable response to Brazilian diversity and a spur to political pluralism. The defenders of private education also supported the LDB because they viewed the decentralization of administrative authority as a useful protection against the regulatory power of the central government. Opponents included the architects of the economically and politically nationalist Estado Novo, who insisted upon central control and planning to advance the integration and development of Brazil (Villalobos 1969; Romanelli 1978). At present, in contrast, advocacy of decentralization tends to be associated with proponents of free markets and privatization. “Progressives,” instead, now tend to be skeptical of the commitment of local officials to the support of education, apprehensive about the effects of decentralization on teachers’ unions and salaries, and fearful of federal government abandonment of responsibility for the education of poor children (Oliveira 1986; Castro 1989; Namo de Mello and Maia 1987).

Positions on the issue often cut across organizational and geographical categories, as well. State and local officials in the relatively prosperous states of the South and Southeast tend to look favorably on decentralization, which promises them greater control over local resources. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the Northeast seek first to ensure the continued flow of federal transfers (Castor and Zabot 1989). Education officials in some states and municipios resent the burden of compliance with the administrative procedures of the federal government, while others are adept at exploiting bureaucratic confusion in Brasilia to advance local interests. The welter of competing interests involved in the debate and the complexity of the positions enunciated prevents even a clear statement of policy alternatives, far less a choice among them.

The persistent failure to resolve the conflict between centralization and decentralization is not just a matter of bureaucratic detail. The indeterminate division of educational responsibilities between national, state, and local governments combined with a lack of transparency in relations among the spheres of government has a variety of pernicious consequences. The most important of these consequences is the maximization of administrative discretion at all levels of the educational system, which leaves the system open to the practice of clientelismo and responsive to the demands of particularistic interests. Another consequence is the minimization of administrative responsibility, as it is virtually impossible to determine precisely who is responsible for ensuring Brazilian citizens’ rights to education.

Administrative decentralization has been an objective of official educational policy in Brazil since 1971. The educational reforms adopted in that year called for shifting responsibility for primary education to municipal governments in step with the development of local administrative and financial capacity (Barretto and Arelaro 1985). In fact, however, little decentralization has taken place. The control of tax bases remains highly centralized and unequal, and state and federal officials remain hesitant to delegate responsibility for schools to authorities at the local level (see Table 4).


There are signs that further decentralization may now be a prospect, however, for two main reasons. First, tax changes required by the new constitution are projected to bring about a significant decline in the quantity of revenues controlled by the federal government, with correspondingly large gains by states and especially municipios (Gomes 1988). Shifts in administrative responsibility may be expected to follow the shift in resources. Second, state and local governments are increasingly assertive in their claims to control their own school systems. The emergence of organizations representing state (Conselho de Secretários de Educação or CONSED) and municipio (União Nacional dos Dirigentes Municipais de Educação or UNDIME) education officials suggests that the pressures in favor of decentralization are growing and that they now represent local aspirations as well as competing interests in national politics. The form that decentralization will ultimately take, however, is still very much in question.

Whether administrative decentralization is good or bad educational policy is not at issue here. The point is, instead, that political disagreements about the means by which the ostensible goals of the educational system are to be achieved have for forty years almost entirely displaced efforts to actually achieve those goals. There is widespread agreement on the goals themselves but intense disagreement about how they should be achieved and about who should be entrusted with the task of achieving them.

Educational Inequalities and the Problem of the Northeast

Closely related to the problem of identifying the appropriate seat of responsibility for basic education is the problem of reducing educational inequalities and improving the quality and quantity of educational opportunities available to the poor. Brazilian society is marked by extreme disparities in income between social classes, between urban and rural residents, and between regions. The economic policies pursued by successive governments appear in many instances to have increased rather than reduced the scope of these disparities (Fishlow 1972; World Bank 1990). Inequalities in income are clearly reflected in other indices of social welfare, including educational access and attainment (Calsing 1989).

Perhaps the single most striking characteristic of Brazilian society is the huge gap on virtually all indices of social and economic development between the industrialized and relatively prosperous states of the Southeast and the laggard and impoverished states of the Northeast (see Table 5). A major focus of Brazilian political economy (with support from the international aid agencies) has been an effort to reduce the chronic poverty and backwardness of the northeastern region. In the early 1980s, for example, the EDURURAL project aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of educational opportunities available in the region, and MEC consistently allocates the lion’s share of its discretionary resources to projects in northeastern states and municipios. To date, however, these efforts have made relatively little difference. The Northeast remains poor and continues to lag behind the rest of Brazil on all measures of educational access and attainment. Indeed, the gap between enrollment rates in northeastern and southeastern states in 1980 was larger than it had been in 1940 (Plank 1987).


The issue with respect to educational inequalities is whether they are best addressed on a regional or on another basis. It can be argued, for example, that the crucial policy problem is not so much that the Northeast lags behind other regions in educational development but that many of the people who live in the Northeast lack access to schools of even minimal quality.16 Attempts to provide additional educational resources in the region may or may not improve the educational opportunities of those penalized by the present system; the key issue is how new resources are distributed within the region. Simply increasing the quantity of funds transferred to the Northeast may in fact increase the advantages of the relatively privileged. This has clearly happened in the educational system: Resources allocated to the region only reach the ostensible target population in a much-reduced form, having meanwhile been put to work in the service of other interests, including those of politicians and their clients (Barretto 1983; CEC/IPEA 1987). A report published by MEC in 1987, for example, determined that only about half of the educational resources allocated to the Northeast reaches the region’s classrooms. The balance is used for the support of functionaries, politicians, and other interested parties, most of whom are not poor (Xavier and Marques 1987).

There are areas of relative privilege in the Northeast,  just as there are areas of brutal poverty in the Southeast. Urban municipios in the Northeast, for example, are better off than rural municipios in the Southeast on many indicators of social welfare (Mahar and Dillinger 1983). Allocating resources in such a way as to reduce regional inequalities without an explicit and sustained effort to direct resources to programs that benefit the poorest residents will not necessarily do much to make the distribution of income or social services more equal.

There are many in the Northeast who derive important benefits from present policies, however. Local politicians throughout the region depend on federal transfers to fund public services and nourish their political bases, and their numbers are increasing steadily with the “liberation” of new municipios (A Tarde 9 September 1990). State politicians also depend on federal transfers to fund the jobs and other benefits that sustain their clients. A change in policy that targeted resources to poor people rather than to poor states would deprive many of these people of their livelihood and many of the political resources on which their power is based. Change is therefore resisted, despite the manifest ineffectiveness of present policies in improving the circumstances of those to whom they are nominally directed. As in the conflict over administrative decentralization, the political dispute is rooted in the struggle to retain control of means rather than in disagreement over the ends to be accomplished.

Public and Private Schools

Conflict over the role of private schools in the Brazilian educational system is at least as old as that between advocates of centralization and decentralization.17 Disagreement has focused on the provision of public subsidies for public schools, with the control of curriculum emerging as a subordinate issue.

Conflict over the role of private schools in the educational system succeeded the dispute between advocates of centralization and decentralization in the long controversy over the LDB and completely dominated the last five years of the debate. On one side were those who sought to ensure priority for public schools in the distribution of public resources, in accordance with the State’s obligation to provide education for its citizens. Opposing them were those led by the Church who defended “freedom of choice” (liberdade de ensino) and called for public revenues to be distributed equally and impartially among the public and private schools to which parents chose to send their children. The advocates of  liberdade de ensino  warned against the dangers of a state monopoly in education in the absence of public support for private schools and denied any threat to the well-being of public schools. The defenders of public education asserted the State’s obligation to provide schools for all and denied any intention to restrict the independence of private schools (Villalobos 1969; Naccaratto 1984).

This conflict became virulent in the debate over the LDB in the 1950s and blocked approval of the law for several years.18 With the terms of the dispute defined so sharply and encompassing so much more than the educational issues ostensibly in question, compromise between the competing positions became extremely difficult, though a formula was eventually found.19

The current debate continues to revolve around the provision of public subsidies to private schools, but the focus has shifted from the question of Church influence and control in the educational system to the question of the profits of private school directors. At the heart of the debate is the inability of the public school system to provide school places of sufficient quality to serve the children of the middle class. Responsibility for the education of these children has been delegated to private schools, while the responsibility for educating lower class children has either been left to whoever will accept it or abandoned. Although these facts are generally acknowledged, their implications remain in dispute.

Proponents of the restriction of public funds to public schools argue that profits are the primary motive of the directors of private schools and that the transfer of funds to private schools deprives the public schools of needed revenues. The defenders of private schools note the insistent demand for private education and the crucial role now filled by private schools in the Brazilian educational system.20 They also argue that the amount of money transferred to private schools is relatively small, given the needs of the public schools, and that the schools that receive subsidies are most often those in rural areas and on the urban periphery that serve the relatively poor, rather than those that serve the elite (Mello e Souza 1989). An end to public subsidies would therefore harm those most in need of help.

The empirical evidence on each of these points is neither complete nor conclusive, but our own research in Bahia indicates that subsidies directed to middle-class households under the SME are far larger than those that assist the relatively poor. In 1988 the amount withheld by firms to reimburse the educational expenses of their employees (idenizações) was six times larger than the amount routed through the FNDE for the payment of scholarships in private schools. Transfers to private schools by public agencies including the FNDE, the FAE, the CNSS, and the State Education Secretariat came to more than Cz$2.1 billion in 1988, an amount three times larger than the amount of salário-educação revenues transferred to municipio governments by the FNDE.21

The resolution of the conflict between proponents of public and private schools adopted in the new Constitution (and in the new LDB that is now being drafted) restricts transfers to private schools organized on a “non-profit” basis, but this has not ended the debate. Some of the short-run problems that may be encountered in the implementation of this policy have been discussed by Velloso (1988). In the longer run subsidizing private schools rather than investing in the expansion and improvement of the public schools is likely to reinforce the traditional dualism of the Brazilian educational system, at the expense of students obliged to remain in public schools.

As in the debate over the decentralization of administrative authority, the debate over public support for private schools represents a struggle over means rather than ends. There is agreement on the goals to be pursued, but disagreement about how they should be pursued—and by whom—interferes with their achievement. The policy debate has come to focus on the question of who shall provide educational services, and at whose expense, rather than on the more important question of how (or whether) a sufficient quantity of educational services shall be provided.


The sharpest and most persistent conflicts in the Brazilian educational system in the past sixty years have arisen not over the choice of policy objectives but over the choice of policy instruments. The precedence accorded to private interests over public objectives has shifted the focus of educational policy debate from ends to means: The question of what is to be done is of less moment than the subsidiary questions of who is to do it and how. Notably, the continuing failure to define the distribution of resources and responsibilities between national, state, and local officials and between public and private schools in itself serves the interests of those in charge of the system, by maximizing their administrative discretion and minimizing their administrative responsibility. The debates that blocked the passage of the LDB for so many years continue unresolved, and the educational backwardness that the Pioneiros da Educação Nova set out to reverse in the 1930s continues, as well.