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New law could revolutionize Brazilian education funding

. Aug 04, 2020
Brazilian education Photo: Joa Souza/ Shutterstock

Congress is moving to make the Basic Education Fund a permanent fixture, increasing the amount invested by the federal government by more than double. The Covid-19 pandemic thrust the Brazilian education system into disarray, with fears that for a large slice of the country’s pupils, 2020 could end up being a wasted year of learning. In-person classes have been suspended for around four months, while plans to reopen schools in September are fraught with risks, with the persistent coronavirus spread in Brazil and fears of a potential second wave of infections.

Additionally, the replacement of conventional teaching with remote learning has only served to widen the education gap between the public and private school systems, as students from poorer families often lack access to the technology required for online classes.</p> <p>However, amid this albeit desperate situation, Brazil&#8217;s Congress has made progress toward approving an importing financial initiative for primary education in the country, which could see almost half of Brazilian cities lifted out of a situation of underfunding.</p> <p>The Basic Education Fund (Fundeb) was introduced in 2007 as a 14-year plan to finance public education in Brazil, from preschooling all the way to college applicants. In its final form, it comprises 27 state funds, supplied by state and municipal taxes and supplements from the federal government. However, the Fundeb was set to expire at the end of this year, which would have destroyed funding for schooling in Brazil. In 2019, 40 percent of all resources used by the public basic education system came from the Fundeb.</p> <p>Last week, members of Brazil&#8217;s lower house of Congress approved a landmark proposal to expand the Fundeb and make it permanent. The new fund would also drastically increase the federal government&#8217;s spending on public education. Instead of the current 10 percent supplementation from Brasilia, the new Fundeb rules would see the federal administration contribute 23 percent by 2026, more than double the current level.</p> <p>A study from NGO Todos Pela Educação calculated that in 2015, 46 percent of municipal education networks spent less than BRL 4,300 (BRL 5,400 in current values, or USD 1,053) per student over the first five years of primary schooling and were unable to achieve satisfactory levels of learning among their students. The new Fundeb rules would allow the minimum spend per student to rise to BRL 5,679, bringing these underfunded municipalities the conditions required to properly educate their schoolchildren.</p> <p>Though pushed through at the last minute, the lower house&#8217;s approval of the bill to make the Fundeb permanent was quite the political feat, considering the almost universal attention on the Covid-19 pandemic and the veritable revolving door of Education Ministers in Brazil since the start of the current legislature.</p> <h2><strong>Brazilian students held back a generation</strong></h2> <p>According to data from the National Household Survey carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the average Brazilian aged over 25 completed less than eight years of study in their lives. In the U.S., this wouldn&#8217;t even be enough time for students to complete middle school, nevermind going on to higher education.</p> <p>While this scenario is progressively improving for younger generations, school performance remains desperately low. In the most recent edition of the <a href="https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/b5fd1b8f-en.pdf?expires=1575386156&amp;id=id&amp;accname=guest&amp;checksum=052893E522DFE2C15965040BC28DEA6D">Program for International Student Assessment</a> (Pisa) test, organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2018, Brazil found itself in the <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/12/03/pisa-oecd-inequality-brazilian-education-levels/">bottom third</a> for reading, mathematics, and science, out of 77 countries tested.</p> <p>Performance in math was particularly disappointing, with Brazil scoring just 384 points, behind Lebanon, North Macedonia, Jordan, and Colombia. Leaders China recorded a score of 591 — a 207 point difference.</p> <p>Here, the finger is often pointed at the lack of government investment in education, though this is only half true. While Brazil spends much less per student on average than OECD countries, the percentage of the country&#8217;s GDP spent on education is comparable to these better-performing nations, suggesting that the problem isn&#8217;t how much money is being spent, it is <em>how</em> that money is spent.</p> <p>To illustrate this inefficiency in education spending, Brazil can be measured against two comparable nations. Indonesia, with a bigger population than Brazil&#8217;s, recorded Pisa scores almost identical to South America&#8217;s largest country in math and science. However, Indonesia spends over three times less per student on basic education for the same underwhelming results.</p> <p>When looking at Mercosur colleagues Chile, Brazil&#8217;s spending per student in relation to GDP is comparable, but the latter&#8217;s Pisa scores lag way behind. In 2018, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> showed that the country&#8217;s education system is <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2018/12/07/brazil-education-productivity/">an entire generation behind Chile&#8217;s</a> in terms of average years of study.</p> <p>Brazilians born in 1988 reached an average of 10.1 years of formal education, while this was the level reached by Chile back in 1964. For their 1988 generation, Chileans recorded two extra years of education per person on average</p> <p>Senator Paulo Paim, the chair of the Senate&#8217;s Human Rights Committee, tells <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>that the country&#8217;s spending on education is &#8220;poorly distributed.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;The quality of education is still insufficient, teachers earn less than they should, and there are still significant inefficiencies at all levels of government,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>&#8220;Being such a large country, with over 211 million inhabitants, these shortcomings in basic education impose a very high cost in terms of underdevelopment, underemployment, and social mobility,&#8221; Mr. Paim added.&nbsp;</p> <h2><strong>The Sobral &#8216;miracle&#8217;</strong></h2> <p>Regardless of the national outlook, one of the particularities of Brazil&#8217;s basic education system is how much conditions vary from region to region. While this largely poses problems in terms of underfunding in disadvantaged areas, it also results in some individual states and municipalities setting themselves apart and giving positive examples of how to manage and organize their local education networks.</p> <p>The most commonly cited example of this is the city of Sobral, in the northeastern state of Ceará. While being located in only the 12th richest state in the country, Sobral was able to reach the highest <a href="http://portal.inep.gov.br/web/guest/ideb">Basic Education Development Index </a>out of any Brazilian municipalities back in 2017. Between 2007 and 2017, the city doubled its score, leading experts to heap plaudits on local public policies.</p> <p>However, in 2018, the local and regional press began to suspect of Sobral&#8217;s astronomically high results, claiming that the city&#8217;s school grades had been inflated across the board. There has been no proof of fraud in Sobral itself, though nearby cities have seen inquiries launched into alleged doctored school reports.</p> <p>According to a World Bank report, Sobral&#8217;s success was down to a combination of political leadership, clear targets — including one establishing that all students should be literate by the second grade — and results-based financing, including incentives for municipalities around Ceará that achieved literacy goals.</p> <p>Now, the Lemann Foundation and its partners <a href="https://www.bemcomum.org.br/?lang=en">Associação Bem Comum</a> and <a href="https://www.institutonatura.org.br/">Instituto Natura</a> are carrying out a program to scale this model to eight Brazilian states, in an attempt to bring the surrounding region up to Sobral&#8217;s high standards.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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