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La Educación
Número: (117) I
Año: 1994

Public Purpose and Private Interests

Debates on policy objectives in the Brazilian educational system are characterized by a remarkable degree of unanimity.4 Political parties, candidates, and public officials at all levels of government agree that the exigencies of economic progress and political democracy demand the reduction of the “social debt” (dívida social) owed by the government to Brazil’s poorest citizens. In educational policy this has been translated into agreement that priority within the educational system should be assigned to eliminating illiteracy and ensuring universal access to basic education.5 Despite consensus on the importance of these policy objectives, however, the number of illiterates in Brazil has not fallen significantly in recent years. In addition, enrollment rates in basic education have barely increased, and large numbers of school-aged children remain entirely outside the educational system (MEC 1990).

Discussions of the persistent problems of Brazilian education typically focus on identifying the causes of repeated failure to implement educational policies and achieve agreed educational objectives. Among the commonly cited candidates for blame are the insufficiency of financial resources, the absence of political leadership, the incompetence and venality of public officials at all levels, the complexity and inefficiency of administrative structures, and the lack of timely and reliable information needed for educational planning.6 These and similar explanations have been proposed regularly to account for the nearly uniform failure of successive policy initiatives to bring about significant and lasting improvement in the performance of the Brazilian educational system.

We will not assume the priority of publicly affirmed policy objectives and ask why worthy goals have not been attained. Rather, we assume in the analysis that follows that policy actions coincide with policy objectives and ask what policy “successes” have been achieved in the Brazilian educational system over the past six decades (Plank 1992). The starting point for such an analysis is the acknowledgement that the ostensible “failures” of the Brazilian educational system serve some powerful interests well. The educational objectives assigned priority by these groups may depart radically from those that are universally affirmed in public debate by politicians and education officials. These actual objectives may nevertheless take precedence in decisions about the allocation of resources within the system.7 Insofar as this is so, the advancement or protection of the interests of these groups represent policy “successes,” even if they are achieved at the expense of “failure” in the achievement of other, more widely shared goals. From this point of view, the persistent backwardness of the Brazilian educational system is not attributable to problems in the implementation of policies. Instead, the situation reflects the fact that the public purposes affirmed by politicians and officials are systematically subordinated to the service of private interests.

Examples of this subordination include the many varieties of clientelistic politics that are practiced in the educational system, the provision of public subsidies to private schools and private school students, and the perpetuation of “free” higher education in public universities.


Clientelismo represents the systematic subversion of public purposes in the service of private interests, through the diversion of public resources to private ends. Rather than responding to the “public” interest through developing and implementing policies that benefit society at large, Brazilian politicians often find that their electoral prospects are best served by concluding private agreements with particular voters or groups of voters. These agreements may extend from the literal purchase of votes to the distribution of jobs and contracts to supporters to the provision of nominally public services to different groups on a particularistic and discriminatory basis.8 The crucial issue in Brazilian politics is, therefore, not what policies are to be assigned priority, but who is to control the instruments of power. Under these circumstances, many of the benefits of government action are captured by favored groups and individuals. Meanwhile, the interests of those with less influence (e.g., the poor, clients of opposing candidates) are systematically neglected.

Widespread reliance on clientelistic politics provides the clearest examples of the subordination of public purposes to private interests in the Brazilian educational system. Clientelismo in education comprises a variety of practices, including the provision of jobs for clients and supporters, the awarding of public contracts to political allies, and the distribution of public resources in accordance with the exigencies of electoral politics.

The provision of jobs for clients (known as empreguismo or fisiologismo) is the most important and most costly manifestation of clientelismo in the Brazilian educational system.9 Reliance on the school system as a source of employment for political allies has a number of pernicious consequences. Administrative agencies at all levels of the educational system are overstaffed, often with underqualified people. Each new Secretary of Education in the state of Rio de Janeiro makes approximately 4,000 political appointments; a survey in the Secretariat of Education in Ceará determined that 19 percent of all functionaries occupied their positions at the discretion of the Secretary.10 Salaries are also provided to “ghost teachers” (professores fantasmas) working outside of schools, or not working at all; Leal has estimated that 20 percent of those receiving teachers’ salaries in Rio de Janeiro are in fact working elsewhere (Leal 1990). Employment according to political rather than professional criteria results in massive turnover among school system personnel in the wake of state and local elections, as senior functionaries and school principals are replaced by the allies of the new incumbents. Similar disruptions occur at the federal level; each new Minister of Education is accompanied into office by over 300 senior administrators (Oliveira 1984; O Globo).

Perpetual turnover among system personnel virtually prevents the acquisition of professional competence among educators and rules out continuity in the execution of educational policies. Pressing educational objectives do not fall to the wayside because of problems encountered in policy implementation. Instead, serious efforts to implement policy are preempted by efforts to cultivate and expand political support through the distribution of jobs.

Examples of clientelismo exist throughout the educational system. For example, school construction contracts are awarded to political supporters, a practice which has been estimated to inflate costs by as much as 40 percent (Mello e Souza 1989). Moreover, in 1986 the rapid reallocation of federal education revenues budgeted for transfer to state governments following the election of 25 opposition governors resulted in an increase of nearly 600 percent in direct federal transfers to municipios (CEC/IPEA 1987; Plank 1990). Other examples include the upsurge in educational investment that accompanies state and local elections and the decline that typically follows (Bahia 1990), as well as periodic accounts of corruption in school feeding programs and elsewhere in the educational system (Folha de São Paulo 20 April 1988, Folha de São Paulo 21 April 1988, A Tarde 27 August 1990). Whether legal or not, these and similar activities shift resources within the educational system toward persons and groups with political or economic ties to those in charge of the system.

Public Authorities and Private Schools

The complex relationship between public authorities and private schools provides a second set of examples of the subordination of public objectives to private interests. This relationship has two main dimensions. On the one hand, private schools receive large quantities of public money through direct and indirect transfers from federal and state governments. On the other hand, the fees that private schools charge parents are subject to regulation by public authorities. In concert, these policies serve to ensure the survival of a large number of private schools and to guarantee the “right” of parents to send their children to them. At the same time, these policies contribute to the further deterioration of the public schools, both by depriving them of potential revenues and by encouraging the flight of parents who might provide an articulate and effective voice in favor of school recuperation. As a result, the public schools are widely and accurately perceived to be schools for the poor, of no immediate concern to anyone other than those condemned to attend or work in them.

There are two distinct kinds of private schools in Brazil. High-quality, high-cost primary and secondary schools serve the children of the middle and upper classes, while low-cost schools serve poor children in areas where the public provision of schools is inadequate. Secondary schools predominate among low-cost private schools, which are found mainly in rural areas and on the urban periphery. Both kinds of schools receive public subsidies, which are essential to the survival of many low-cost schools. The regulation of school fees represents a concession to middle-class parents and has consequently had its largest effects on high-cost schools.

Public subsidies to private schools take several different forms. Private schools are exempt from the payment of both income tax and the wage tax (salário-educação) targeted for support of primary education. These private institutions participate in a variety of agreements with federal, state, and local governments in which public authorities “purchase” school places.11 Students may receive scholarships for private school tuition from a variety of public sources at both state and federal levels, some of which are distributed through the offices of elected officials, including members of the National Congress. Under a policy known as the Sistema de Manutenção do Ensino (SME), firms may withhold the payment of contributions under the salário-educação in order to maintain their own schools or to reimburse the educational expenditures of employees or their dependents. They may also route their contributions to private schools through the Fundo Nacional de Desenvolvimento da Educação (FNDE) in order to provide tuition scholarships for the children of their employees (Velloso 1987; FNDE 1990).

In addition to providing opportunities for fraud and the practice of clientelismo, these policies result in the diversion of large quantities of resources from public to private schools. Since 1985, for example, more than half of all salário-educação contributions have been routed through the SME rather than through the social security system (FNDE 1990) (see Table 2). Direct federal expenditures on student scholarships and the purchase of school places through the FNDE, the Fundação de Assistência ao Estudante (FAE), the Conselho Nacional de Serviços Sociais (CNSS) and other agencies are also substantial (FNDE 1990; Leal 1990). In 1989 federal transfers to private schools amounted to 2.3 billion cruzeiros, or more than one-third of all federal expenditures on primary education. Transfers from state and local governments were also large in many states, especially in the Northeast.12


Public authorities in Brazil have also adopted policies to protect the access of middle-class households to private education. Over the protests of private school directors, the series of economic “plans” decreed by the Sarney and Collor governments have included the regulation of private school fees (mensalidades), in a relatively successful effort to keep them in line with (likewise regulated) salaries.13 The main effect of this policy has been to spare middle-class parents from the obligation of sending their children to public schools. The share of primary school children enrolled in private schools has risen substantially since 1985, with some fluctuations, while the share of secondary enrollments in private schools has declined slightly (see Table 3).


The role of private schools in the Brazilian educational system has been a topic of intense political controversy for four decades. (The nature of these conflicts is discussed further below, in section IIIB). A campaign to restrict the allocation of public funds to public institutions produced one of the most contentious debates in the recent Constituent Assembly (Plank 1990), and the question has been raised again in the debate over the new Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional (LDB). Conflicts engendered by the regulation of private school fees have in turn been the most loudly contested educational issue in Brazil in the past five years. With respect to these conflicts, however, it is important to note that they have emerged in consequence of competition between specific private interests (e.g., between middle-class parents and the directors of private schools) and not between competing conceptions of the public interest. The majority of Brazilians who lack the economic or political resources necessary to escape from the public schools are not represented in these debates, and their interests are systematically neglected as a result.

Keeping Public Universities “Free”

A third example of the subordination of public to private interests is the perpetuation of “free” higher education in public universities. Despite the priority universally accorded to primary education and the conquest of illiteracy in political manifestos and policy documents, about 60 percent of the federal education budget continues to be devoted to the support of federal universities (Verhine 1991; Gomes 1988). The shares of state education budgets that go to fund state university systems are also steadily increasing. An estimated 23 percent of all public educational expenditure is allocated to higher education institutions, though these enroll only 2 percent of the students in the public education system (Paul and Wolff 1992).

Only about 8 percent of those in the relevant age cohort are enrolled in post-secondary education institutions, and 60 percent of these pay fees to attend private colleges (see Table 3). The clients of public universities are disproportionately recruited from among urban residents and members of the middle and upper classes, many if not most of whom have attended private primary and secondary schools.14 At the Federal University of Ceará, for example, 53 percent of those enrolled in the prestigious (and expensive) faculties of Engineering, Medicine, and Data Processing come from families in which the father had completed higher education, and 88 percent of those enrolled had attended private secondary schools. By way of contrast, fewer than 4 percent of all adult males in the Northeast had completed higher education in 1987, and only one-third of all Brazilian secondary students are in private schools. The disproportions were smaller but still pronounced in less prestigious faculties (e.g., Administration, Nursing) and at the State University, where more than two-thirds of students had graduated from private secondary schools (Paul and Wolff 1992). The failure to charge tuition in public universities thus provides a public subsidy to those least in need of subsidization and undermines the fulfillment of other objectives, including the expansion and improvement of basic education (Saviani 1986).

As with the issue of public subsidies for private schools, the question of “free” public higher education has been intensely debated in recent years in the Constituent Assembly and elsewhere. The main beneficiaries of present policies are students in federal and state universities, who are relatively few but nevertheless cohesive, articulate, conscious of their own interests, and politically important. Those who pay the price to keep higher education “free” are far more numerous but almost entirely disorganized and inarticulate. Therefore, public resources for education are distributed in a way that systematically favors the privileged at the expense of those most in need of public assistance.


The need for educational reform and improvement is almost universally acknowledged in Brazil, but those who gain from present arrangements are unwilling to give up either current or prospective advantages. Though publicly affirmed goals are not achieved, this hardly represents policy “failure.” In fact, the educational system is reasonably successful in serving powerful private interests, including those of politicians and their clients and middle- and upper-class households. Resources are scarce, and policy choices systematically favor those with privileged access to power. The consequences include jobs for clients; subsidies for private schools, public university students, and middle-class parents; and the continued deterioration of educational services for those from less favored constituencies.15