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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

The Reformist State

At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, Costa Rica initiated a new phase of social development. The political happenings of the 1940s made possible the definition of a new form of state, within which middle and petty bourgeois elements promoted a process of political change with a reformist notch.

Within the context of a new constitutional and legislative framework, rules and specific dispositions tried to establish the necessary conditions to improve qualitatively the economic development of the country, by moving the axis of capital accumulation coming from export-led agriculture to industry. The emergent groups that came into power in 1948 were determined to modify the state apparatus in order to sustain politically their economic aspirations.21

The overcoming of the Liberal scheme did not cause the alteration of the consensual stratus which had characterized the political model since the late nineteenth century. On the contrary, the new ideas of economic progress and modernization were defined within a political context that favored “persuasion” before “coercion.” Such context tended to displace violent forms of political control to a second place, orientation that was best emphasized by the abolition of the army in 1949. In due order, the Reformist state sought to strengthen the education system, its most conspicuous mechanism for consensual generation.

On the other hand, the training of technicians and professionals, as well as the labor force, to confront the new challenge of economic development constituted the essence of administrative and curricular reforms. Such goals, intimately imbued by the “Development Theories” that prevailed in Latin America during those years, sought to establish effective links between economic growth and education.22

From the nineteenth century to the 1950s, Costa Rica had concentrated on the expansion and generalization of primary education. The next two decades were to witness a relevant expansion of both elementary and secondary education.

The secondary school reform, which implied new scientific and technological options, and the modernization of the administrative apparatus, constituted perhaps the processes of change that best reflected the government interest to maximize, through a reform, the strategic objectives of the education system.

The “development honeymoon” of the sixties, intimately linked to the creation of the Central American Common Market, encouraged and promoted great expectations of economic growth and social welfare. However, at the beginning of the 1970s, reality invalidated and frustrated many of the economic and social ideals.23

Because the country’s agro-export economy is so dependent upon the international market, it is very vulnerable to its fluctuations. The economy has experienced deep turmoil as well as periodic fiscal turmoil.

In the 1970s, the onset of the world economic crisis, the already apparent failure of the Central American common market,24 and the escalate of social discontent—among other important factors—revealed the limitations of the state model, conveying altogether the necessity to adapt the reformist project to the new needs and demands of society.

The obscure economic scene that characterized the Figueres administration (1970-1974) prompted the definition of new strategies to adapt the reformist scheme to the new circumstances. The answer for education was the National Plan of Educational Development (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo Educativo). In an attempt to curve the impact of the crisis, this project was aimed primarily to rationalize the expenditure in education.25

Several studies carried out during the early 1970s revealed that the field of education was marked by severe signs of decay: excessive expenditure, a disruption between social reality and study programs and curricula, high rates of school desertion and illiteracy, a great inequality between rural and city life, and scarce human and material resources were the most sensitive problems analyzed.26

Though highly ambitious in theory, the “Plan” had scarce concrete achievements. In the middle of the exacerbation of the capitalist world crisis, and within the narrow possibilities of economic growth, the education policy encouraged by Minister Uladislao Gámez suffered severe limitations. However, not only economic reasons explain the failure of the “Plan.” The opposition of conservative groups, the lack of appropriate training, communication gaps between the Minister, his close collaborators, and the teaching force, and the apparent ambiguities of some of the propositions inevitably lead to its demise.27

Whereas the education outcome at the primary and secondary level were undisputably deficient at the end of the Figueres administration (1974), the advances at the higher education level were notable. The foundation of the National University (Universidad Nacional), the Technological Institute (Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica), and several community colleges denoted the government’s goal to train technical personnel to confront the new challenges of economic development.28

During the Daniel Oduber administration (1974-1978), the meaning of the “reformist readjustment” changed, and the role of education and the state changed accordingly. The growing influence and participation of the state in the economic field—aimed at the preservation and revitalization of the benefactor and interventionist model—as well as the revaluation of the agriculture and cattle sector due to the weakening of the industrial model, were the most significant signs of the new orientation. This “counter-crisis strategy” meant the return of agriculture as the axis of economic development, the introduction of technical planning, and the expansion of welfare programs.

At the education level, the new orientation of the state meant the enforcement of agro-technical education, the expansion of primary and secondary schooling in rural areas, and an early introduction of a “de-centralization scheme” that sought to make the administration of education more expeditious and rational. The aim was also to incorporate the rural areas to the prevailing production strategies in an efficient manner, and to discourage peasant migration to the cities.29

The growth of the state influences at the economic and social level also meant an increased demand for qualified personnel or technicians. Higher education opportunities were sensibly expanded. The creation of the Distance Learning State University (Universidad Estatal a Distancia) was an important outcome.

In 1978, “Unidad” won the presidential race, displacing “Liberación Nacional,” the party in power. It is important to mention that ever since the 1948 Civil War, two major parties have struggled in the political arena: Liberación Nacional, a permanent organization, and a coalition of heterogeneous forces that have come together as the opposition to the former party at election time. Liberación Nacional historically embraced a social democratic ideology and a reformist orientation, whereas the opposition guidelines have been of a conservative tone. When in government, the opposition tried to reduce the intervention of the state. Despite this, many reforms with a social orientation promoted by Liberación became permanent. Today, the ideological frontiers between both parties have become sensibly erased. As the neo-liberal postulates permeate the economic arena, the social “advocates” have tempered—if not abandoned altogether—their previous stands.

Between 1978 and 1982, the impact of the international energetic crisis, the erratic fluctuation of the colón, export problems, and fiscal distress, as well as serious confrontation within opposing fractions of the governing party30 deterred the implementation of a pressing economic stabilization program, thus allowing the Costa Rican economy to plunge into one of its worst crisis. Notwithstanding the financial problems, the Carazo administration, fully grasping the urgent need to revitalize the education field, defined a most comprehensive educational reform project.

Having as its axis the decentralization of education planning and management as well as the enactment of a new general education law, the Carazo government tried to modernize and rationalize the educational field.31 Nevertheless, the opposition of teachers unions, bureaucrats, the press, the Catholic Church, the opposition parties—in particular, Liberación Nacional—and the difficult economic conditions decimated considerably the proposed transformations. Whereas the General Education Law was not approved by Congress, the program for the decentralization of education, although finally implemented, suffered significant alterations.32

In the 1982 elections, Liberación Nacional won by a wide margin. The priority of the new government was to reactivate the weakened economy. It sought to promote exports and to diversify production. At the same time, government renegotiated under better terms with international financial institutions, in particular the IMF. This measure translated to fiscal stability, although it also meant the country’s submission to the demanding dictates of the foreign institutions.

With regard to education, the Monge administration was to have its own reform project, although in essence many of the proposed changes had already been contemplated in the previous reform.33 This was no coincidence. The same general parameters accepted as fit for the modern educational systems in the Western world were once again embraced. Furthermore, many conspicuous educators who had worked in the Carazo project helped to draft the new project.34

What the new general education law hoisted as new was a closer relationship between the Catholic Church and the educational apparatus, a more important role for private schooling, more emphasis on the possibilities offered by the Distance Learning State University system (Universidad Estatal a Distancia), and concrete programs for the preservation and enrichment of the cultural and natural patrimony.35 The general law project, presented to Congress in the last year of the administration (1985), was not approved. Although Liberación Nacional had majority in Congress, the lack of political support inhibited its legal sanction.

The reform would have implied the need of additional resources for the education field in times of economic need. Since the source of these education funds had to be the state, the project was really conceived within the increasing competition between state institutions for the limited resources. In that competition, education was to be the loser.

A consecutive Liberación Nacional term, the Oscar Arias administration, was able to temper the economic crisis. Good coffee prices in the international market, favorable agreements with international financial institutions, new soft loans, donations from the United States government, and more austere and proper economic policies eased the economic turmoil.

Disregarding the economic awakening, the Arias administration did not enforce the educational reform plans of its predecessor. It discontinued many specific programs and did not support the general education law project submitted to Congress. On the contrary, the new administration drafted its own general education law project during the first year in office.36 However, the new attempt to give the educational field modern general parameters failed once again at the end of 1986 due to the resistance of various pressure groups and the indifference of the legislative body.

In 1988, the Annual Operative Plan (Plan Operativo Anual) of the Ministry of Education disclosed serious problems: the continuous decrease of the education budget, lack of rational planning and coordination, serious infrastructural and teaching personnel deficiencies, and obsolete curricula.

The Operative Plan revealed the urgent need to initiate a restoration venture of the whole education field. However, notwithstanding the fact that the education authorities knew, understood, and fully interpreted the deterioration degree reached by the educational system (and even defined important strategies to overcome the educational crisis), they could not put their ideas into practice due to the scarce political and material support they received from the Legislative and Executive powers.

Since the electoral campaign, the former candidate of Liberación Nacional, Oscar Arias, clearly stated his intention—if elected President—to allot important state resources to the construction of popular housing projects. Arguing that the country had reached important achievements in the areas of public health and education, Arias believed it was time to give preference to other needs and demands of the Costa Rican society.37

Such decision meant in practice a further decrease in the already decimated budget for public education. The budget of the Ministry of Education in relation to the central government expenditures had been tumbling from 30.8% in 1978 and 25.6% in 1980 to 21.9% in 1984. In 1986, the first year of the Arias administration, such percentage decreased to 19.1%, and oscillated between 19% and 18% during the rest of his term.38

More than 95% of the total budget of the Ministry of Education was invested in salaries of administrative personnel and teachers. For that reason, the initial good intentions to transform radically the education field were turned into partial and cosmetic modifications that came to alleviate, not to cure, the critical panorama of education.

The Calderón Fournier administration, which took office in May 1990, strongly denounced having received a state with “empty arks.” The pressure of international financial institutions to “liberalize” the economy, reduce tariff protectionism, and limit salary raises, together with two major earthquakes and a severe tornado, as well as a serious cholera epidemic, have strained the economic atmosphere. Besides, the failure to define a comprehensive scheme for economic and social change has inhibited an effective coordination between social welfare and economic development.

The Calderón administration has been severely criticized at the education level. The implementation of new study plans and curricula at the primary level, with neither previous training of teaching personnel nor suited didactic material, has generated an angry reaction, in particular, from teachers unions.39

Furthermore, an ambiguous stand with regard to old pension privileges of teachers propitiated a heated debate that lead to a serious general strike. Although the parties in dispute finally reached a compromise, the anxieties caused by the movement still alter the education arena.

In the context of new agreements with international financial institutions that seek to reduce welfare policies and stimulate “productive investment,” in face of economic limitations, and under dispositions of mostly improvised nature, the education field does not seem to have an optimistic future.

As Minister Marvin Herrera has stated,40 good intentions are not enough when more than 98% of the education budget is now spent on salaries. Under such crude reality, what can then be spared for buildings, didactic material, teacher training, and the implementation of new ideas? Although the AID, the World Bank, and other institutions have cooperated with donations and soft loans, these have proven to be insufficient to modernize the obsolete education structures.

However, economic restraints are not the only elements that inhibit the necessary education transformation. The absence of a comprehensive reform project and the lack of political support also deter good intentions from becoming a reality.