Essay: Private schools in Argentina – A threat to the Human Right to Education?

Educational inclusion is a process that is constructed in opposition to the forces and trends that historically produced and produce the denial of the right to education of the poor and excluded in Latin America. The process of inclusion in the early twenty-first century has changed the situation remarkably: Today, “the probability that boys and girls under five years complete their primary education in 2015 is 95% or higher in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay, and is located between 90% and 95% in Brazil, Costa Rica and Venezuela.” (UNICEF 2006, 44). It is notable that especially countries that have faced (or face) neoliberal adjustment and privatization policies, especially during the 1990s, have achieved universal levels in the same basic education access opportunities. However, to argue that in Latin America an effective educational inclusion process has taken place, without analyzing the peculiarities that characterized its development, can be misleading. Strictly speaking, what is observed during the second half of the twentieth century is an important process of universal access to school, associated with a progressive expansion of the legal recognition of compulsory schooling. Its democratic potential still depends on providing experiences and opportunities for certain political conditions, reversing trends such as those I intend to describe below, limit or deny the effective possibilities of assertion of this right.

The education system in Argentina is mainly based on principles arising from the Constitution, which are universal, free, compulsory and common education to all inhabitants of the country. One purpose of this system is to promote equality of opportunity between social classes and eliminate educational inequity between regions (National Education Law 26.206, Article 11). Throughout history attempts to build an education system that produces quality results regardless of social class and contribute to equal opportunities are observed. From the promotion of education by President Sarmiento in 1870 whose central idea was to educate all the people to prepare in the use of human rights, these principles have become pillars of the Argentine education system. As a result, Argentine schools housed since its inception students of different races, cultures, nationalities and in particular students from different social classes.

Argentina ranks among the biggest investors in education in Latin America, allocating public funds equivalent to 6,5 % of GDP (more than both the regional and OECD averages). The World Bank notes that Argentina is the country that invests most in education throughout Latin America and where more resources allocated per student (about $ 1,700 a year). From 2004 to 2010 this resulted in an increase in the number of public school facilities from 28 000 to 53 000 and teaching positions from 398 000 to 453 000. Hence the effort in terms of increases in the allocation of public resources devoted to public education has been significant. Enrollment in Argentina is higher than the regional average at all levels of education. Net enrollment is higher in primary education than in the OECD average, and slightly lower in secondary education.

A study of UNESCO on education legislation showed that the regulations in Argentina guarantee equality and restrict commodification. The study conducted by Vernor Mu??oz, former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education of the UN, assumed that ‘although the right to education is built into the constitutional blocks of most countries, it is understood in different ways.’ (Mu??oz 2011: 6) He showed that in Argentina and Uruguay laws ‘are explicit in restricting any possibility of commercializing education’, and even ‘prohibit the signing of international treaties which provide that education is treated as a commodity’. The Argentine Constitution analyzed by Mu??oz provides for the state’s ‘greatest responsibility for functions of planning, organization, supervision and financing of education’ (op. cit. 35).

In this work, I intend to explore the formal recognition of the right to Education and how the nature of the fulfillment of this right has been modified by the expansion of neoliberal educational reforms in Argentina. The universalization of access (affirmed by Human Rights) shall be contrasted to the segmentation and differentiation of educational institutions (corroborated by neoliberalist reforms). It is going to be questioned whether the attributed conditions to the Human Right of Education can still be effectively realized under the current conditions.

Exposure of the problem

According to the National Law on Education (Ley Nacional de Educaci??n), the Argentine education system is structured as follows:

– Initial Education: consisting of kindergartens for children between three and five years of age, and being obligatory for the latter.

– General Basic Education (EGB): nine grades of obligatory education. It is understood to be a comprehensive pedagogic unit organized in different cycles.

– Secondary School (Educaci??n Polimodal): after finishing the EGB. It has a minimum duration of three years.

– Higher Education: Professional and academic education. Its duration is set by universities or corresponding agencies.

In this paper, I am is going to focus on General Basic Education and Secondary School as there are more data available, also in a comparative perspective. In the following section, I am going to point out the main topics of concern at these levels of education in Argentina: growing enrollment in privately run schools, low permanence and completition rates as well as low levels of performance.

Even though more than 70% of Argentine students attend public schools, the private sector has become increasingly important since the 1940s. When the country began subsidizing private education in the late 1940s, only 8% of elementary students attending private schools, in 1998, 21% of students at that level were enrolled in private schools and 63 % of them attended schools run by the Catholic Church. This sustained expansion of private enrolments reached approximately 25% of the school population nationwide by the 2000s, with some significant peaks of more than 50% and up to 65% in urban districts with a high-middle class population, such as Vicente L??pez and San Isidro. In Buenos Aires City, close to 50% of students attend private institutions.

The number of students attending basic education (initial, primary and secondary levels) also increased. According to the Ministry of Education’s Office, between 2004 and 2010, total enrollment in the three levels of basic education went from 9.4 to 9.9 million students. The breakdown by type of management of the institution that received this increase in coverage between 2004 and 2010 was as follows:

– Enrollment in State-run schools increased by 79,000 students.

– Enrollment in privately run schools increased by 373,000 students.

– This means that of the total increase in enrollment in primary education occurred between 2004 and 2010, 83% chose private education.

The attendance of adolescents 12 to 17 years reaches 89%. Obviously the problem is not access but its retention, while according to official data, 56% of adolescents and young people of secondary school graduate in a timely manner and only 50% complete secondary school.

The annual rate of abandonment is 9.34%, this causes the delay in school history, making 11.66% of students aged 12 to 14 years have 2 or more years overdue, this percentage rises to 34.18% for students 15 to 17 years. Associated with the retention also found 3.5% of children and adolescents who do not attend but attended a school setting, the data show that this percentage is mainly composed of adolescents 15-17 years of age (84.3%) while a small proportion is between 12 and 14 years (10.8%) and the remainder within 12 years (4.9%). If the data are disaggregated according to the income level of the family, the level of education of the parents or the geographic area of the country in which they live, the differences between different social segments would be strongly associated with educational attainment, so that those who are in the best situation (have higher incomes, educational capital and/or belong to urban middle classes) reach higher educational levels than those who are less well off. For example, adolescents from households with lower educational capital – whose adult members were enrolled on average less than seven years in the formal education system, the school attendance rate is lower (66.0%) than among adolescents in households where adult members came to take on average 16 years or more of schooling (98.2%).

But besides permanence, other difficulties arise as those related to academic performance. According to the National Evaluation (ONE) based on a test conducted by the Ministry of National Education to students of the final year of high school, “indicates that on average 30% of the students perform poorly, 16% reach a high level, and 53% show an average performance.’

Similarly, according to PISA 2012, Argentina ranks 59th among 65 nations (sixth out of eight Latin American countries), falling one spot compared to 2009. Overall, 66% of the students who took the math exam, 54% of those who took the reading test and 51% of those who took the science test were unable to reach the basic threshold.

School performance is also strongly correlated with socio-economic status. In this context, it is not surprising that Argentina is one of the countries with the highest dispersion in results according to PISA and TIMSS. The uneven interschools spread of results show that Argentine students are exposed to very different learning environments. But contrarily to what is usually believed, Santos (2007) found that once control for family background, private schools do worse than public ones. This is coincident with what OECD (2005) points: that the relative better performance of private schools in many countries is due to a more advantaged social intake.
The Argentine educational system has endured a progressive de facto school segregation based on social class, generating implicit subsystems of education (Narodowski & Nores 2002; Neufeld & Thisted 1999). This segmentation by social class happens even within the State sector (and obviously within the private sector, where fees determine directly who can access which school). In this way, some schools have been labelled as ‘stigmatized schools’; they are discredited and associated with a low quality education. Thus, these institutions are avoided by those who have more resources and possibilities to choose a school for their children ‘ mainly the middle and higher classes (Neufeld & Thisted 1999). Resources are unequally distributed between schools that cater for the underprivileged and middle-class schools that tend to have better buildings, computers, laboratories and other resources. Thus, the Argentine educational system is characterized by increasing segregation based on social class and marked inequalities. This can be seen in a wider context of rising inequalility, as pointed out by 2013 Report on Social Debt: The structural marginality did not improve in Argentina despite years of growth rates of 8% p/a. Absolute poverty has declined, this being attributed mainly to conditional transfer programmes. The issue presented here evidences that considering only income inequality is insufficient to account for the complexities in social life.

The Human Right to Education

The right to education is increasingly recognized as an overarching right ‘ one not only fundamental in itself but also indispensable for the realization of all other human rights (Ouane & Glanz 2006).

The major milestones in the acknowledgment of the right to education as a human right were Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 28 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and declarations made in a series of UNESCO world conferences on education for all (UNESCO 2000a, b, c; Spring 2000). Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that ‘Everyone has the right to education,’ but does not articulate the purpose and content of this right.

The 1960 Convention on discrimination in Education is of particular interest for the discussion of the retreat from public education. Discrimination concerning the implementation of the right to education may take the form of ‘any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference’ that is exercised based on peoples’ race, color, sex, language, social class, religion, political opinion, and national origin (Brownlie 1992: 319). The convention can be taken as a strong argument against the mere provision of education without considering possible inequalities in quality. In the Argentinian case discrimination has to be examined as a more subtle process, especially on the basis of social class, family income etc.

In 1989 the UN issued the Convention on the Rights of the Child represents a novel approach, viewing children as autonomous bearers of rights. Children are entitled to civic, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. All these rights share equal status, are interrelated, and are indivisible. It is the responsibility of the state to take all necessary actions to allow all children to fully realize their rights (United Nations 1989): ‘States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention’ (Article 4). However, ‘With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation’ (Article 4).

Articles 28 and 29 of the convention are specifically dedicated to children’s right to education, and they state that the child is the bearer of the right (not his or her parents or any other party). Parents or other persons legally responsible for the child should ‘[…] provide in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention’ (Article 5).

States Parties are obliged to progressively fulfill the right to education. Progressive application, a typical directive for the implementation of social and economic rights, does not undermine the responsibility of the state. States must take concrete actions, within a reasonable period of time, to fulfill the goals stated in the convention. The universal minimal educational requirement is to ‘make primary education compulsory and available free to all’ (Article 28(a)). Concerning secondary education, states should ‘encourage the development of different forms […] including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in the case of need’ (Article 28(b)). There is recognition that primary education is insufficient, and that secondary education should be made available to all students free of charge.

Concerning the right to education, states are obliged not only to refrain from discrimination (as stated in Article 2) but to actively secure equal opportunity (as stated in Article 28). States must also ‘take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates’ (Article 28 (e)). This emphasis on equality is significant with relation to the potential stratification of schools in Argentina.

Article 29 adds a qualitative dimension by focusing attention on the contents and purposes of education. Education must be child-centered and directed to ‘the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential’ (Article 29(a)).
Concerning education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted the principles that were stated in the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The supervisory committee led by Katarina Toma??evski (2001) overseeing the implementation of social rights established four criteria to measure the extent to which the right of education is being put into practice in any specific state. These criteria are indivisible and must be progressively implemented.

Availability: Educational facilities for all children must be available.

Accessibility: Educational facilities must be free of charge, indiscriminately admit all children, and be physically accessible to all children including disabled children.

In compulsory education, usually private schools can be understood as tool of the structural discrimination in the accomplishment of availability and accessability, once the tuition fees act as a powerful mechanism of social selectivity, which strengthens and reproduces deep social and economic inequalities in Argentina. In practical terms, attendance at private schools is the main requirement to access further education, jobs and social positions.

The increasing use of public funds to purchase private standardized systems, the possibility of profit on the sale of such services and the expansion of transfers of public funds to the private sector, profit and nonprofit, reduces the State’s ability to provide new vacancies in the public system due to the reduction of public resources available to create opportunities, especially in non-mandatory stages and in those where coverage is low, and for children and adolescents with disabilities or special needs.

Tax exemptions (indirect financing) and the direct transfer of resources to the private sector, including the possibility of accounting these expenditures in order to calculate the amount invested in GDP, encourages privatization, weakens the state’s ability to implement directly the education tends to decrease the infrastructure, technical staff and management of the State to provide quality public education.

Acceptability: The content of education should be congruent with the purposes stated in the convention and offered by qualified educational team, in a supportive and well-equipped educational environment.

Especially in compulsory education, the increase of the private sector in provisioning basic education is due to the spread of a negative perception of public education (e.g. La Naci??n 2014) fostered indirectly by the Argentinian State by disseminating the results of standardized tests, understood in national public policy as the sole criterion of quality, which is disseminated decontextualized in relation to the socioeconomic profile of the students and the cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of populations. The idea of quality conveyed in the adoption of standardized systems is self-referred and supported by advertising strategies, usually based on brand advertising in elite private schools promising to promote the improvement of the performance with regards to standardized tests of scale applied by state to the students.

Adaptability: Student-centered education must be responsive to children’s wishes, inclinations, talents, special needs, and students’ cultural background.

Private schools receive little State regulation, which hinders the assessment regarding compliance with the guidelines and standards for education.
Private systems, thus, tend to subordinate schools, teachers and students to the standardization and weakening of their capacity as active and creative players of the process of enjoyment the right to education. In this sense, it opposes to democratic management of education.

While international human rights law does not clearly state who the direct provider of education services should be, CESRI General Comment 13 states: “It is clear that article 13 [of the ICESCR] regards States as having principal responsibility of direct provision of education in most circumstances. States parties recognise for example, that the “development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued’ (?? 48). The State is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the right to education is upheld regardless of the provider of education. Under international human rights law, States have the obligation to regulate and to monitor private education institutions. The State must ensure that private providers meet minimum standards, as laid down by the State, and that educational freedoms do not lead to extreme disparities of educational opportunity for some groups in society (ICESCR, Article 13 and CESCR General Comment 13, ?? 30). In any case, there is a positive obligation on the part of the state to realize the right to education and to make education available and accessible. In contrast to that social aspect, the freedom aspect (Beiter 2006) implies negative state obligations by guaranteeing the personal freedom of individuals to choose an education and the right to establish their own educational institutions. The educational choice of parents also ensures that families can choose education that is in line with their own religious and moral convictions. It requires the states to follow a policy of non-interference in private matters. The common rationale for privatisation in education, for example ‘parental choice’ needs to be questioned: In the context of inadequate, poor quality or inappropiate public education, this cannot be considered a ‘choice’ at all.

Exclusion is a social relation, not a state or a position in the institutional structure of a given society. Thus, those who are excluded from the right to education are not deleted only by staying out of school, but also by forming part of a set of relationships and circumstances that keep them away this right, denying or assigning them this right restrictively, conditioned or inferiorly. Historically, refused to the poor the right to education by preventing their access to school. Today, this right is denied when there is offered them no choice but to stay in an educational system that does not guarantee or create conditions for the effective access to quality education, when limited the effective conditions for the exercise of this right by maintaining conditions of exclusion and inequality that have moved into the own school system. These conditions block, catch and limit the democratic effectiveness of the educational expansion process, conducing the poor to the inside of an institution that, in the near past, had a set of barriers that limited their opportunities to access and retention.

As Toma??evski points out, while UN conventions and modern democratic theory define education as a human and citizenship right, international trade law defines education as a service and commodity, legitimizing the sale and purchase of education and the exclusion of those who are unable to pay for it (Toma??evski 2006). In Argentina, the expansion process has been accompanied by an intense dynamic segmentation and institutional differentiation in the context of neoliberal reforms which should be explored in the following section.

Neoliberalism and the restructuring of education

In its most general sense, neoliberalism is a concept used to describe the financial policies which were formulated and adopted in western societies in the late 1970s and gained dominance in the early 1980s. Although neoliberalism can be defined as all types of effort to increase the power and profits of capital and the groups who own capital, since the 1980s it has been used to describe the development of a specific process of capitalism. Neoliberalism involves the policies that are based on a rhetoric of personal freedom and political democracy, but which focus on macroeconomic measures, such as deregulation of markets and trade, flexible labour markets, privatization of public services, macroeconomic stability and strict financial discipline. These measures imply low levels of public debt and public expenditure, and the reduction of public expenditure in areas of economic imporance (Perrons 2004). Poverty and unemployment, on the other hand, are seen not as macroeconomic phenomena but as personal failings that can be overcome by improved training and more entrepreneurship. It relies on a social philosophy of individual responsibility and, correspondingly, de-emphasizes the significance of structural social effects, such as those related to class or poverty. Lerner (2003) emphasizes that there are many different variants of neoliberalism. Peck et al. (2009: 101, 106, original emphasis) stress that we should favor dynamic conceptions of neoliberalization over static notions of neoliberalism:

defining a prevailing pattern of regulatory restructuring, driven by a family of open-ended social processes and associated with polymorphic forms and outcomes… [n]eoliberalism has not and does not pulsate out from a single control center or heartland; it has always been relationally constituted across multiple sites and spaces of ‘co-formation’.

In Argentina, under the strong influence of international organizations such as the IMF and the WB, a new phase of pro-market reforms started with the government of President Menem in the 1990s. In 1989 the country was going through a severe economic and social crisis. With a monthly inflation rate of over 200% (Cisneros 1998) and salaries depreciating by the hour, rioters took to the streets and the situation became unsustainable for the government (Palermo & Novaro 1996). The new government blamed the ‘interventionist state’ and Argentina’s closed economy for the crisis. Consequently, the opposite route ‘ a smaller state and an open economy ‘ was presented as the only possible option for overcoming the crisis. The ‘modernisation’ of the state was launched through a series of pro-market reforms, following the demands of international organisations (Repetto 2001). In such a context, educational reform implemented in Argentina in the 1990s took the ‘crisis’ of the educational system as a starting point and proposed a complete reformulation of the system through an all-embracing reform. This discussion includes reference to the two laws passed in the 1990s: the Federal Education Law (24,195/92) and the Higher Education Act (24,521/95), passed during the government of President Carlos Menem. For some people, these laws represent the structure of the national education system in line with neo-liberal principles and policies, which are also very contradictory: among the most emblematic policies one can identify the subsidiarity of education, restructuring of the education system to improve its effectiveness and efficiency, extended compulsory education, quality improvement through the decentralization and modernization of the educational curriculum, decentralization of the system at nonuniversity levels, development of new sources of funding, professionalization of teaching and development of compensatory social policies to serve the most disadvantaged sectors of the population. The mere listing of these guidelines shows the contradictory nature of the principles and the difficulty of describing them as strictly neo-liberal.

Concerns were raised about quality improvement after the implementation of a national system of quality assessment, which was interpreted as measuring the learning achievements of students, whose effects were more political than pedagogical. The decentralization of the education system to the provinces operated as a mechanism for cuts in national public expenditure and devolution of responsibility to levels of management that were closer to educational institutions. The principle of subsidiarity of education acted as a catalyst to increase the relative importance of private education and the transfer of funds to the sector, reducing the public budget for education and developing new and alternative sources of financing. The policy that was promoted as a means to professionalize teaching through the development of cycles of training and evaluation functioned as a control mechanism for teachers in a context of rapidly declining wages and deteriorating working conditions. Finally, such compensatory social policies as were implemented failed to address the root causes of the problem of inequality, and their impact was extremely modest.

According to Whitty (1998), three trends that are developing in the field of education in different countries in which educational provision has been mainly dependent on the public sector can be distinguished: a) privatization of the public sector; b) direct subsidies to the private sector; c) indirect promotion of the private sector.

The first statewide trend is the private sector (in the style of the privatization of state enterprises productive: telecommunications, energy, etc.), or the granting of certain services, previously performed by government employees, to a private company, which is still funded with public funds. The clearest case is that of school meals or cleaning services. But in this latter form, have been concessioned more important questions of educational policy, as is the development of the common core curriculum (CBC) at different levels of the education system. The second trend, direct subsidies to the private sector, are those that have historically prevailed when education systems are mixed, ie public education and private education. Private schools receive public funds, usually for payment of salaries of school, and tax exemptions. These funds make private schools prosper at the expense of state schools. Again, the private sector benefits at the expense of public funds.

The third trend, indirectly, to promote the private sector, is perhaps the one that has gained in importance in the implementation of neoliberal policies. This is the official support to the private sector, which takes the form of hidden subsidies, and reduces the capacity of the public sector to compete against it. These strategies begin to emerge from the Transfer Act Educational Services National jurisdiction to the provinces and the City of Buenos Aires, that after the speech of decentralization and federalization hides its true meaning, it is not other than the transfer of functions and responsibilities of a central agency to other agencies of local management. But this delegation of tasks and responsibilities, which is directly associated with financing mechanisms and business management, conceals the double play centralization and decentralization. The responsibility for financing and results are decentralized, but planning, assessment, teacher training, teaching contents, i.e. the political-pedagogical control is centralized. First, some schools receive direct subsidies from the State that permit, at least in theory, a reduction of fees paid by students. In some cases, like in many escuelas parroquiales (Church schools located in economically disadvantaged areas), fees are dropped to insignificant amounts or are even sometimes eliminated. The State’s aid in the form of subsidies is substantial: for example, in 2001, 19% of the total economic resources that were destined for education in Buenos Aires City were directly transferred to the private sector without using any public mechanisms to decide which schools should benefit from the scheme (Gvirtz & Beech 2007). Currently, the State subsidizes approximately 70% of privately managed schools (Wolff & de Moura Castro 2002).

Human Rights and Neoliberalism – The multiple faces of a confrontation

In this regard, recent studies (Perez Centeno & Leal 2011) show that despite the expansion of school coverage over the last decade, which has had an important and beneficial impact on socially disadvantaged groups, the differences are still very significant. Educational opportunities become more unequal in a school system institutionally more complex and heterogeneous, less egalitarian and more polarized, segmented and differentiated. Educational goods, far from constituting in its condition of equal and inalienable rights, apparent discrepancy between the formal recognition of rights and the unequal treatment that the market gives different human beings, because of their unequal opportunities also to certain assets and resources. It is therefore important to establish priorities and programmes, and secure educational and financial resources that will underpin real progress in increasing access to education and reducing social and educational gaps. In this sense, Ana Maria Ezcurra (2011) developed the concept of ‘exclusionary inclusion’ that applies to all levels of education, possibly even including higher education. The concept refers to the fact that, although there has been an extremely significant enlargement process in relation to enrollment, and this will continue into the future, there are inherent processes, such as dropout, failure, segmentation, differences in academic capital and so on, that mean that education primarily benefits the middle class at the expense of the poor, and this raises doubt as to whether there can be real inclusion. In this line of argument, an analysis of the results must take into account ‘inclusive’ inclusion, so that the processes do not benefit only the most advantaged, and that achievements are translated into actual benefits for all students at the levels of socialization, development of cultural capital, citizenship and integration into the labour market. As noted by Tedesco and Tenti Fanfani (2004) in Latin America the concept of educational quality should not be limited to the assessment of outcomes nor to the production of content to be learned, but there is a need to emphasize the achievement of adequate levels of equity to ensure the sustained development of educational and social processes.

Removing education from field of the human, social and collective, and pass the field of commodity, creates strong pressures for governments to promote a reduction of education as a human right. If education is understood in its broadest sense, as a prerequisite for the personal development process and the society itself ‘ it proves to be blatant that there situations or official policies that should result in denial of that right.Paradoxically, while the international community pushes for an increasing respect for human rights, the world is organized under an economic system that operates on the basis of their systematic violation. The current form of the defense of human rights is in danger of becoming mere palliative for the abuses which appear as “inevitable” and perpetuate exclusion, as long as that defense does not fundamentally put into question the neoliberal logic.

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