Administration and Finance

Colombia Table of Contents

In the 1980s, the national government continued to bear the primary responsibility for public and private education. The authority was extended downward from the president to the minister of education and by delegation to the secretaries of education in the departments, the national territories, and the large municipalities that maintained their own school systems. It extended also to several decentralized institutions concerned with education matters.

There were various kinds of schools. At all levels of schooling, the central government operated a small system of national schools ranging from preschool units in major urban centers to the massive UNC in Bogotá. Only in Caquetá Department, however, were national schools in a majority. Most of the schools were maintained by the departments and the national territories, and many were maintained by municipalities with populations of more than 100,000. Because schools in the national system were large and well known and their teaching staffs were in a favored position, analysts often overemphasized their numerical importance.

The private sector of education was made up of schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church, schools operated by other religious denominations, private schools, and cooperative schools operated by communities. Catholic schools predominated.

The Constitution guarantees freedom for private ownership and operation of schools in the private sector. However, they had to be licensed, meet public-school standards, and generally use the public curriculum, and they were subject to supervision by the public inspection system. Private institutions administered by foreign organizations could use the language of the home country for instruction, but they had to employ Colombian teachers to conduct classes in the Spanish language on the country's history and geography. Catholic schools used texts prepared by Catholic publishers adapted under government order to conform to the prescribed official program of study. The Colombian government relied heavily on the private school system, and it financially supported institutions that provided scholarships to children from poorer families.

In the 1980s, the administration of the education system involved an interplay between forces of central control and forces of regional decentralization in which political considerations had an important part. This interplay had existed for many years, and the complexity of the issues involved was perhaps best exemplified by the issuance in 1968 of a decree establishing the system of Regional Educational Funds (Fondos Educativos Regionales--FER) as a many-faceted attack on the country's educational problems. Theoretically, the public education system had been a unit in which the Ministry of Education set down patterns and rules and coordinated and supervised the day-to-day administration provided at the regional levels. In practice, a kind of anarchy had developed, in which the departmental and municipal systems had operated with a degree of de facto autonomy that prevented the central authority from effectively using the material and human resources theoretically at its command.

The FER program sought to remedy this situation by establishing a relationship between the Ministry of Education and the regional school systems in which the amount of money assigned to each regional system and the manner in which it was to be spent were determined by contract. To administer the FER program and to provide a direct line of communication between the national and departmental levels, delegates were named by the minister of education to oversee the FER programs and to cooperate with the regional secretaries of education in administering the local education systems. Because the delegates were to reside in the departmental capitals and devote their attention exclusively to the departmental and municipal school systems in a particular area, the Ministry of Education maintained that the change was one of decentralization. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

Before the end of 1969, contracts had been signed by each of the departmental governors. The most significant portion of each contract was a section requiring that the department establish a special bank account to receive the monthly national contributions. If the terms of the contract were violated or if during any month the corresponding regional contributions to the education fund were not deposited, the contract would be suspended, and any unexpended funds would be returnable to the national government. Although this was the only sanction set forth in the contract, it was a highly potent one.

The FER system achieved mixed results. The varying degrees of noncompliance resulted from and illustrated the problems that had plagued the country's education system in the past and continued to disturb it into the 1980s. The root causes were intense regionalism and the politicization of the local systems.

The presence of the delegate as the representative of the control authority was frequently resented. What the central authority wanted did not always meet regional needs. The regional delegate could work only through the regional secretary of education, who was not an educator and who was not concerned primarily with education. In addition, the regional delegate was responsible not to the minister of education but to the governor of the department, who was in turn responsible to one of the two major political parties.

Although the education sector grew continually after the 1930s, the most rapid changes occurred after the 1960s. Colombia began to move toward a long-standing educational goal, equal access to primary education for all sectors of society. In 1987 about 90 percent of the children between seven (the age established for obligatory primary school attendance) and eleven years of age attended primary school in urban areas. In many rural areas, however, the number was often below 70 percent, and in some areas it even dipped below 50 percent in 1988.

The educational levels of the population improved in tandem with the country's economic growth. Around 30 percent of the twelve-year-old population went to secondary school in 1985, in contrast to only roughly 8 percent in 1951. Nevertheless, percentages were much lower in the rural areas because there were few secondary schools. Moreover, 80 percent of all university students attended classes in just five cities.

In quantitative terms, the performance of Colombia's education sector has been impressive. Although increases in the number of young people entering the school system have remained constant-- roughly 3 percent annually throughout the 1970s and 1980s--the system not only has kept pace with population growth but also has increased its rate of absorption of students. In absolute figures, one of the most difficult tasks for the public primary schools was the absorption of 2 million new students in less than twenty years. This growth was particularly remarkable, given that the system had less than 1.5 million students in 1960. But this accelerated growth was achieved at the cost of a decline in the quality of public education because it focused largely on the increased availability of classrooms and teachers without taking into account the need for supplying other critical resources.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress