Education Minister Ricardo Veléz-Rodríguez

As has become customary, messages recently published on President Jair Bolsonaro’s official Twitter account have raised a series of questions about the head of state’s motives and intentions. And no, this time we’re not talking about the golden shower incident. On Monday, Mr. Bolsonaro posted a series of tweets concerning his plan for launching an “Operation Car Wash” into Brazil’s education system.

Borrowing the name of the sweeping corruption investigation into contracts signed with state-owned oil and gas giant Petrobras, the original pitch—floated in February—was to propose something similar in education, investigating contracts and covenants signed with the Ministry of Education.

In its essence, it is a worthwhile endeavor, as several programs under the purview of the Ministry of Education have been subject to suspicions of fraud, and investigating therein is commendable. However, President Bolsonaro’s tweets at the beginning of this week have suggested the operation is for another purpose entirely.

In the first two posts in a thread on the matter, Mr. Bolsonaro repeated his initial justification for this “Education Car Wash,” pointing out that Brazil spends more on education (in relation to GDP) than the average of developed countries, yet it is lagging way behind in performance indicators. He then mentions that the priorities and funds being applied should be investigated, which was agreed upon by the Ministries of Education and Justice, the Federal Police, the General Counsel of the Federal Government, and the Federal Controller General.

However, it is the latter of his tweets that raised the alarm of academia and society as a whole. “Initial data show very strong indications that the [education structure] is being used to maintain something which is not in Brazil’s interest. We know that this could result in strikes and coordinated movements which would harm the Brazilian people. More information soon for the good of our country.”


Brazil's education problem, in charts


Fears of a witch-hunt

Jair Bolsonaro’s vague tweet is a teased reference to the true motivation behind the Education Car Wash plan. Among the most common tropes of the Brazilian far-right is a perceived leftist indoctrination at all levels of the country’s school system. Mr. Bolsonaro and his cronies repeated this claim ad nauseum during the campaign, and the president went back to this platform earlier this week, leaving no doubts about the sentiment of his previous comments. He stated that he plans to “change the ‘educational’ guidelines implemented across decades,” as a way of stopping the advance of the “production line of political militants.”

The idea of a shadowy left-wing force, indoctrinating impressionable youths at school, is taken straight from the anti-globalism hymn sheet. The Jair Bolsonaro government has many competing forces and factions, and anti-globalism is certainly among them. Represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, and the Minister of Education, Ricardo Veléz-Rodríguez, this paranoid line of thinking holds reasonable weight within the administration.

The biggest proponent of anti-globalism in Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro’s ideological guru, the self-titled philosopher Olavo de Carvalho. Living in the United States, he reportedly suggested that Messrs. Araújo and Vélez-Rodríguez be appointed to Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet. This week, however, Mr. Carvalho’s paranoia got the better of him, claiming that the president was “surrounded by enemies” and that all of his disciples should abandon their posts in the government.

That this wing will lead the investigations into the Ministry of Education has led academia into a panic, fearing that an ideological witch-hunt is on the horizon.

The real problem

At the base of Jair Bolsonaro’s proposal to launch a probe into the education system, there is some truth. As a percentage of its GDP, Brazil does spend an above average amount of money on education, for little return. On the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, Brazil sits in 66th place in mathematics proficiency, 63rd for science, and 59th in reading—out of 70 countries.

Six percent of the country’s gross domestic product goes on public education every year, higher than the average of other nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This figure is slightly misleading, however, as it does not depict the amount spent per student, in a country of over 200 million people, with a notoriously young population. According to the OECD, Brazil spends on average USD 38,000 (by purchasing power parity) on each student aged between 6 and 15. The Organization recommends an investment of USD 80,000.

Even so, according to experts, the money that is spent on education is done so inefficiently. Countries with similar levels of investment per student, such as neighbors Uruguay, obtained better results in Pisa rankings.


Brazil's education problem, in charts


BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.