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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994


For any nation, the transition from a strong autocratic government to a democracy is arduous, traumatic, and unpredictable, as the newly liberated East European countries are demonstrating. The transition is particularly difficult if the nation is a cobbled together collection of once independent territories that possess distinct cultures, hold to their own traditions, and speak diverse languages.1

Under these latter conditions, the attempt at democratic transition may result in a fractured nation with breakaway republics, as occurred in the Soviet Union; or outright civil war, as happened in Yugoslavia. As these events take shape in the early 1990s, the potential for conflagration, civil war, or return to a hard-line dictatorship is always present.

Fifteen years before the troubled transitions to democracy began in Eastern Europe, Spain successfully faced a similar challenge. Within its borders were vestiges of ancient kingdoms with distinct cultures and diverse languages that demanded their independence. Reminiscent of the Soviet experience, Spain also withstood a coup d’etat attempt by right-wing military officers demanding a return to the old ways.

In the final analysis, the Spanish experience is instructive because in this case the result was a unified nation that made a swift and pacific transition to democracy.2 The result is sometimes called the “Miracle of Spain.”

Regarding the field of education, what the Spanish found in the late 1970s the East Europeans are discovering in the early 1990s. That is, establishing a democracy requires the reform of an educational system that reinforces the democracy as well as making effective and efficient use of human and material resources.3 Many countries, like Spain, begin their educational reforms through a process of decentralization.4

The initiative toward establishing local control through decentralization was principally a reaction to a series of powerful forces that were products of forty years of autocratic, centralized rule under the Franco regime.5 Politically and administratively, the educational system and its policies were dominated by tight centralized control.6 Gunther writes:
All key decision makers (the Council of Ministers, civil governors, mayors of large cities, high-ranking bureaucrats, and others) were either directly or indirectly appointed by, and responsible to, him. Moreover, even though he rarely played an active role in the actual formulation of public policy, he imposed constraints on the range of possible policy options available to the state administration, thereby preserving the basic characteristics of that regime until his death in 1975.7
Prior to the democratic transition of 1977 (when the first free elections were held), the system of public education at the elementary, secondary and university levels was frequently characterized in the research literature as administratively and organizationally centralized, economically underfunded, politically controlled, and academically conservative (e.g., restrained from innovative tendencies).8 * Dr. E. Mark Hanson is a Professor of Education and Management at the University of California, Riverside. His research specialty is studying educational reforms in Spanish-speaking nations. He has twice been named a Fulbright Scholar for Latin America, and the Spanish government awarded him a research fellowship to study educational reform in that country. Dr. Hanson has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, the Agency for International Development (AID), and UNESCO. Carolyn Ulrich is a Research Assistant at the University of California, Riverside and works as a consultant for companies on issues of bilingual education.