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Bolivia: Decentralization and quality of education
María Cristina Mejía
The process of political decentralization that started in Bolivia in 1994 transferred jurisdiction over education to the municipal level. This process, together with education reform, contributed to the development of the education sector. Bolivia’s quantitative indicators showed a marked improvement, reaching net coverage rates of 97 per cent at the primary level and 60 per cent at the secondary level. However, the quality of Bolivian education did not advance at the same rate. Among other factors, the ambiguity and overlap of responsibilities among different levels of government dramatically affect the quality of education every day.
Despite the process of education reform that helped provide new educational supplies for the first two cycles of primary education and assigned technical staff to every municipality, the gaps between the quality of private versus public and rural versus urban education have not changed substantially. The poor, both urban and rural, attend public schools, which are particularly inadequate in remote rural areas because, aside from limitations in infrastructure, few trained teachers accept work there and the provision of education inputs is deficient.
In addition, improvements at the primary level have fallen short because secondary education reform remains no more than a project. Because of this system, secondary school graduates that want to attend university must take a pre-university course that will help them improve their knowledge. Only 20 per cent of students admitted to university actually graduate, which reveals an academic failure rate of 80 per cent at the university level.
During this time of change in Bolivia, when government bills, decrees, short laws (leyes cortas), measures and resolutions are passed at unusual speed, the Law on Autonomy is a reason for hope —but also a risk— for the education of future generations. The Law on Autonomy could be an opportunity to provide quality education if it allows the education system to be managed by institutions less distant than the central government and gives enough authority and decision-making power to local and departmental authorities. In order to guarantee that future generations receive quality education, departmental and local authorities must be enfranchised and vested with legitimate authority to manage systems of supervision, information, initial teacher training, monitoring and evaluation; this would open space for addressing the education needs of a culturally and socially diverse population within the framework of national norms and policies.
Currently, the Ministry of Education exerts its administrative authority through nine Departmental Education Services (SEDUCAs in the Spanish acronym), which are sub-units under departmental authority. SEDUCAs have a series of day-to-day responsibilities in the administration of education, especially those related to staffing and gathering information about the education system to be relayed to the central government for its analysis and dissemination. Teachers are paid by the Ministry of Education and the departmental and municipal levels have no authority over them.
To date, the role of departmental governments (formerly known as prefectures) in education has not been very relevant because the process of decentralization that started in 1994 favoured relationships between the national and municipal levels. Even though the education reform of 1994 transferred some responsibilities to the prefectures, such as hiring and designating staff at the municipal and departmental levels, in practice the selection process and hiring for positions is carried entirely by the Ministry of Education. Initially, this was due to the weak technical capacity on the part of the departmental governments, although the ministry has also demonstrated a lack of will to delegate responsibilities as established by law. It also must be mentioned that, for years, the prefectures made no effort to assume the responsibilities that had been assigned to them.
The ambiguity and overlap of responsibilities among the central, departmental and municipal levels continuously affect the efficiency of the local management of education. For example, at the municipal level, the district director, who is responsible for managing the schools in his district, reports to the Ministry of Education, while the mayor, who is responsible for providing infrastructure and inputs, is an authority elected through popular vote. This situation usually leads to lack of co-ordination because neither the departmental government nor the mayor has any authority over the district director or over any other civil servant in the education sector; this can delay or limit the provision of inputs to school, or make support to the district director’s work insufficient, among other negative consequences for the quality of education. Overlaps also exist at the departmental level: in Santa Cruz there are currently two departmental education directorates: one that reports to the Ministry of Education and one that reports to the departmental government.
The Law on Autonomy is emerging as a reason for hope in improving the quality of education in Bolivia. Right now, the bill for a Framework Law on Autonomy, which is under revision, proposes that the central government keep virtually all the responsibilities that it has had until now. However, keeping in mind the urgent need to improve education services, the bill’s revision could allow for some fine-tuning in the transfer of responsibilities, especially those that concern the operational management of education, to sub-national authorities. To date, these authorities simply provide infrastructure and inputs. Millions of boys and girls will have a better future if, in this process, the quality of education is prioritized over political concerns.
Maria C. Mejía specializes in education and human development. As a public servant, she has held various offices, including that of Minister of Education. The author can be reached at email@example.com.