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Education a victim of crisis
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Dropout rates and school closings have increased sharply this year.

This year could see a school dropout rate of about 20 percent, while 13 percent of private school students have switched to the public school system, according to school officials and teachers’ unions.

The effects of the lack of an adequate education policy have been exacerbated by the political and economic crisis that erupted late last year, resulting in a sharp increase in unemployment and the rapid impoverishment of the middle class (LP, Jan. 14, 2002).

According to the Ministry of the Economy, unemployment increased from 18.3 percent to 22.4 percent between October and April, and the poverty level rose from 38 percent to 49 percent. The steady devaluation of the peso, which was pegged to the dollar from 1991 until the end of last year, has led to a drop in wages and forced businesses that carried their debt in dollars to close.

"I think it’s the first time in history that there are empty desks in the schools and no students on the waiting lists," said Marta Maffei, head of the Confederation of Education Workers.

The elimination of scholarships for low-income students and the closing of school meal programs — which provided many students with their only meal of the day — "dealt a mortal blow to public education and pushed dropout rates to unprecedented levels," Maffei said.

"The basic equation for resolving this crisis includes the school meal programs, scholarships, a good work environment, teachers who don’t have to worry about anything except the kids, and parents who are supportive," said educator Adriana Puigross, who heads an interdisciplinary educational research center and serves as a consultant to the United Nations.

The outlook for the public school system is bleak. Besides eliminating most of the meal programs, which operated in about half of the country’s schools, and two-thirds of the scholarships, the government has fallen behind on payment of teachers’ already low wages.

Argentina has 11,200 public schools with 7.6 million students. About 550 school buildings are unsafe, while education officials say that another 1,200 "are seriously lacking or represent a hazard," with walls and roofs in danger of collapse, broken bathroom fixtures and a lack of running water and electricity.

Until the crisis struck, the school meal programs and scholarships kept Argentina’s dropout rate below 6 percent. Elimination of the scholarships will mean an immediate increase in that figure, Maffei said.

According to official statistics, demand for scholarships exceeds supply by 62 percent. Of the 901,000 children who meet the requirements, only 350,000 will receive the US$15-a-month scholarships, as long as the exchange rate does not change excessively. The others are at risk of dropping out.

Availability of scholarship funds also depends on the government’s negotiations with the Inter-American Development Bank.

The situation is just as critical for private schools. About 10,000 private schools, half of which are operated by the Catholic Church, serve 2.4 million students. Last year, 184 closed, according to the Catholic Education Council (CSEC) and the Association of Private Educational Entities (ADEP). So far this year, 27 have closed and 30 are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Catholic schools are subsidized by the government, which pays the salaries of teachers and administrative personnel. About 30 percent of the students receive some type of financial aid, about twice as many as received scholarships in the past decade.

Secular private schools do not offer scholarships, but this year many instituted a barter system, allowing parents to swap services for their children’s education. Parents who are doctors or psychologists, for example, offer medical care or counseling in exchange for tuition. Parents who are painters, electricians, carpenters or plumbers help maintain school buildings (LP, May 3, 1999, and May 21, 2001).

Because of the crisis, private schools last year showed a 35-percent overdue tuition rate. So far this year, their enrollment has dropped 13 percent, as 312,000 students have switched to the public school system.

In a 1995 UNICEF survey, 48 percent of Argentines said that private education was better than the public school system. That belief, mainly held by the middle class, led to the growth of private education in the past decade, fueled by a false parity between the peso and the dollar.

The trend reached its peak in 2000, when 140 new schools opened. Last year, however, there were only 95 new schools, and this year none have opened, although 50 have begun the paperwork.

Parents have responded to the crisis by supporting their children’s schools.

In public schools, parents who are better off donate food or tend community gardens so the school meal programs can continue. They also do building repairs and donate textbooks and other school materials, and actively support teachers in their fight for a fair wage (LP, March 25, 2002).

The same is true in the less elite private schools, where parents gather to make improvements to classrooms or raise money.

In nearly two dozen schools in Buenos Aires and elsewhere that had filed for bankruptcy, parents formed associations so that the institutions could continue to operate as non-profit organizations.



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