The giant non-issue in Venezuela’s election

Education in Venezuela rarely makes the headlines. In a country where a firebrand populist holds sway over the news cycle, where infrastructure is crumbling, and where crime rates are soaring, there simply isn’t enough space on the front pages dedicated to the nation’s schools. That’s a shame, because solving the entrenched deficiencies in its educational ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Education in Venezuela rarely makes the headlines. In a country where a firebrand populist holds sway over the news cycle, where infrastructure is crumbling, and where crime rates are soaring, there simply isn't enough space on the front pages dedicated to the nation's schools.

That's a shame, because solving the entrenched deficiencies in its educational system is a must if Venezuela is ever going to develop. This is a complicated problem, and oil wealth alone will not make Venezuelans into knowledgeable and productive members of the global community.

The state of education in Venezuela is not good. While the Chávez administration has made progress in boosting spending and increasing enrollment, according to the World Bank almost 200,000 school-age children are out of school; 5 percent of all adults are still illiterate; and 6 percent of all primary school-age females drop out before completing primary school, while the number for male students is 10 percent.

Education in Venezuela rarely makes the headlines. In a country where a firebrand populist holds sway over the news cycle, where infrastructure is crumbling, and where crime rates are soaring, there simply isn’t enough space on the front pages dedicated to the nation’s schools.

That’s a shame, because solving the entrenched deficiencies in its educational system is a must if Venezuela is ever going to develop. This is a complicated problem, and oil wealth alone will not make Venezuelans into knowledgeable and productive members of the global community.

The state of education in Venezuela is not good. While the Chávez administration has made progress in boosting spending and increasing enrollment, according to the World Bank almost 200,000 school-age children are out of school; 5 percent of all adults are still illiterate; and 6 percent of all primary school-age females drop out before completing primary school, while the number for male students is 10 percent.

Furthermore, UNICEF reports that while 67 percent of all school-age males and 75 percent of all females are enrolled in secondary school, only 30 percent and 43 percent, respectively, attend regularly.

Sadly, neither Chávez nor opposition candidate Henrique Capriles are proposing serious paths forward for the nation’s schools.

Chávez’s platform mentions increasing enrollment a couple of times, but no specifics are given. Capriles is even hazier — although he does mention early childhood education in his platform, something Chávez fails to do.

This is surprising given their records. Chávez’s government has placed great emphasis on funding education, and Capriles is well-known for an innovative approach to improving school infrastructure.

Getting more Venezuelan children into school is a daunting task, but the challenges in terms of quality are even larger. Sadly, there are no statistics available on this point because the Venezuelan government refuses to participate in international standardized tests.

Unlike Chávez, Capriles believes the quality of education should be assessed. When he was governor of Miranda, Capriles asked the OECD’s PISA program to evaluate the quality of education in Miranda’s schools and compare it to that of other countries. In a move that surprised nobody, the federal government refused to participate and denied funding for the project, so the test was applied only in schools run by the state (regional) government.

The results showed that Miranda’s students are on par with those of Mexico, Brazil, or Colombia in terms of reading literacy, and similar to those of Mexico in terms of science proficiency. But only 58 percent of students were estimated to be literate at or above the baseline level to participate effectively and productively in life, and 40 percent of students are proficient in mathematics and able to use those skills in ways considered fundamental for their future development. (The photo above shows Venezuelan university students demonstrating against the government last year.)

The key to Venezuela’s medium-run growth prospects is increasing the access and quality of its public education. It’s just too bad there is no room in the campaign cycle to talk about this.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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