By John Otis
Comparing the Divide: Education lies at the heart of inequality — economic and racial — in America and around the world. As the US approaches Martin Luther King Day, two cities still struggling to learn that lesson are Rio de Janeiro and Selma, Alabama. These two cities, which share a history of both economic and racial inequality, also share a close ranking for economic inequality on the Gini Index: 0.523 (Selma) and 0.519 (Brazil).
RIO DE JANEIRO — One of Rio de Janeiro’s finest private schools, the Colegio Teresiano is surrounded by tropical rainforest. Brazilian poetry and novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez fill the library. Florid works of naïve art decorate the hallways.
This resplendent setting provides an intellectual jump start for children of middle and upper-class families who can afford the $700-a-month tuition. 2011 World Bank stats puts annual per capita GDP in Brazil at $11,640, or $970 per month. That’s why it’s jarring to find an 11-year-old slum-dweller wearing the Teresiano’s blue-and-white uniform.
The student, fifth-grader Lucas Junior, hails from Rocinha, a mountaintop ghetto, or “favela,” whose red-brick shacks are visible from the Teresiano school’s top-floor balcony and where many people get by on a few dollars a day. In Rocinha, public schools are overcrowded and lessons are sometimes interrupted by drug shootouts. But Lucas sidestepped that dead-end scenario because his father works at the Teresiano as a hall monitor and family scholarships are an employee benefit.
“My son is learning things here that kids don’t learn until two years later in public school,” said Adilson Junior, 34, while taking a break in the school snack bar. “Lucas has a golden opportunity. But all children should have this opportunity and an equal shot at success.”
An equal shot. That was the holy grail for 19th century US school reformer Horace Mann, who promoted equality in schools as the key to upward mobility for the lower rungs of society. One of the earliest advocates of universal public education, Mann lobbied for public schools to bring children of all social classes together in order to give them a common learning experience.
But in Brazil, a rising global power which sees itself as a peer of the United States, many experts say the two-tiered education system accentuates the country’s huge gap between rich and poor. Despite recent improvements, in 2009 Brazil scored 0.557 in the Gini Index, which placed it as the world’s tenth most unequal nation. In 2012, the Gini coefficient for Brazil was 0.519, according to the CIA World Factbook.
This inequality — whether in schools or in economic opportunity — also cuts along a sharp racial divide. Brazil has a brutal history of slavery, was late in accepting the abolition movement, then did little to help freed slaves — and it shows. Today, Brazilians who identify themselves as black or brown represent slightly more than 50 percent of the population, and their income level is half that of whites, according to IPEA, a government-linked think tank.
Given this racial divide, it is revealing that the Gini coefficient for the country of Brazil mirrors that of Selma, Alabama, a city that became synonymous with the struggle for civil rights and voting rights in America. To some degree, this movement was a reaction to a profoundly racist and unfair system of schooling, known as “separate but equal,” which the US Supreme Court finally overturned in the historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
Education has been at the heart of rising inequality — racial and economic — in America and around the world.
Brazil’s class divisions start hardening around the age of five. That’s because, depending on their economic status, Brazilian children are either funneled into rundown public schools that often prep them for mediocrity, or into high-quality private institutions that nurture great expectations and lay the groundwork for achievement.
“This amounts to educational apartheid,” Claudia Costin, the education secretary for the city of Rio de Janeiro, told GlobalPost.
Education and economic success are closely linked. Costin cited studies indicating that each additional year of schooling can provide an income boost of about 15 percent.
But even though more children from the Brazilian underclass are now attending public schools, second-rate teachers, badly equipped buildings, short school days, and lack of parental guidance combine to produce legions of dropouts and ill-prepared graduates.
That’s especially worrisome because Brazil is now the world’s sixth largest economy. Yet largely due to its education woes the country lacks qualified applicants for many high-tech jobs. In some cases, Costin says, headhunters have had to look outside the country for qualified personnel which means fewer Brazilians can move up the economic ladder.
It’s not just a Brazilian storyline. Parallel rich/poor school systems that help maintain a lopsided status quo are the norm throughout Latin America, the region of the world where according to the Gini Index inequality is highest.
“When a society becomes more and more divided, it becomes increasingly class-driven,” Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Siglitz told GlobalPost. “And it’s very hard for democratic processes to work well in that kind of society.”
Thanks in part to deteriorating public schools, the United States is increasingly turning into “that kind of society.”
For the past generation, many parents who could afford it have been removing their kids from public institutions and placing them in private academies. Education isn’t the only factor, but this shift coincides with an alarming jump in income inequality. Between 1980 and 2007, the portion of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from 10 percent to 24 percent.
“Which leads to a question for the United States: why would you allow that to happen, when we in Latin America can show you how difficult it is to achieve the kind of exemplary middle class that you invented in the first place?” wrote Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister who now teaches at New York University.
“So before the United States continues on its current road of dismantling its version of the welfare state, of shredding its social safety net, of expanding the gap between rich and poor,” Castañeda writes, “Americans might do well to glance south.”
Yes We Can?
If Americans fixed their eyes on Brazil, and in particular the northern fringes of Rio de Janeiro, they might spot the Monteiro Lobato K-12 public school. And unlike the palm-fringed courtyards of the Colegio Teresiano, it’s a barren landscape for learning.
The school is framed by dusty streets where drug dealers sell crack. During a recent visit, the toilets didn’t flush due to a lack of water and lunch service had been cancelled. In the 90 degree heat, electric fans struggled to cool the classrooms.
“If I had kids, I would not send them here,” said an exasperated Vivian Fadel, the school principal.
But for many poor children, Monteiro Lobato is the only option. Some of the students were gathered in a cramped outdoor courtyard that doubles as the school gymnasium. When asked about their aspirations, one of them, a curly-haired 13-year-old named Ingrid, said she wanted to be a fashion designer or an architect. But it seems like a stretch.
Ingrid, who comes from a broken family, has never met her father. In fact, 400 of the 1,300 students at the school do not have a father registered on their birth certificates.
Ingrid’s mother works as a maid and is gone all day so when she gets home from school there’s no one to help or encourage her to study. And Ingrid spends a lot of time at home because the school day in Brazil lasts just four hours.
During that time Ingrid doesn’t absorb much because her teachers, many of whom work at two or three schools to augment their salaries, sometimes fail to show up. Fadel would like to fire half of her teachers but can’t because of union contracts that protect civil servants.
Despite her interest in architecture, Ingrid has never heard of the late Oscar Niemeyer, a Rio native and a giant of modern architecture who designed the hyperboloid and flying saucer-like structures of Brasilia. In fact, Ingrid doesn’t even know that Brasilia is her nation’s capital. She’s also unfamiliar with the botanical garden, the theaters and the art galleries of Rio, one of the world’s great cities, because no one at her school ever bothers to organize field trips.
A little later, Ingrid and her friends excuse themselves. It turns out four of their nine teachers blew off work today so the students have decided to go home.
One of the few professors who does show up is Lenice Loiola. She tries to inspire students like Ingrid to take on the world. But she suspects many of her pupils will go on to become teenaged welfare mothers or gang members.
Given the barriers to deep learning at the nation’s public schools, Loiola has come to a stark conclusion: “Brazil,” she says, “wants its poor people to remain ignorant.”
For much of the nation’s history, that was the quasi-official policy.
Organized as a slave colony for Portugal, Brazil imported as many as 3 million Africans captives to labor in mines and on sugar cane plantations. Brazil was the last nation in the hemisphere to abolish slavery — in 1888 — and when it did there was little effort to educate black, Indian and mixed-blood Brazilians who made up the majority of the population.
Many European immigrants to southern Brazil valued education. But the country’s public schools were so bad that they took it upon themselves to found their own private and religious schools. The concept of universal public education was ignored.
“Argentina and Chile and other countries were promoting universal education back in the 19th century but in Brazil you had nothing like that,” Simon Schwartzman, a Rio-based political analyst, told GlobalPost. “Even in the 1950s, half of all Brazilians were illiterate.”
During the country’s military dictatorship that lasted from 1964-85, Brazil’s leaders focused on building highways, ports and other infrastructure rather than schools. The drive to educate all Brazilians finally took hold in the 1990s and became a top priority following the 2002 election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Ironically, Lula, a former shoeshine boy who dropped out after fourth grade, was one of Brazil’s least educated presidents. Yet he became an inspiration for the underclass, a yes-we-can example of upward mobility.
Lula doubled per-student spending on education and introduced Bolsa Familia, a program that provides monthly cash stipends to poor families who keep their children in school. Today, according to UNESCO, 95 percent of Brazilian children, aged 7-14, have access to primary and middle school education.
In a 2010 speech shortly before he stepped down following two terms in office, Lula declared: “I want every child to study much more than I could, much more.”
As if cramming for a final exam after a semester of sloth, Brazil under Lula and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has been in a headlong rush to make up for past inaction by bringing education to the masses. But turning such a large ship of state has proven to be extremely difficult.
Indeed, Brazil’s public education system now appears to have grown too big too fast and experts say that educational quality has suffered.
For starters, there aren’t enough buildings to hold all the new students. Many schools operate on a series of four-and-a-half-hour shifts, with the first students arriving at 7 am and last departing at 10 pm. Classrooms are sometimes jammed with 40 or more students. At the Colegio Teresiano and other private schools, classrooms are often half that size.
Many students are being taught by less-qualified professors because the best and brightest are no longer interested in working at public schools. Costin cited one recent study showing that 60 percent of Brazil’s public school teachers were not in the habit of reading books.
Some policies have just plain backfired. For instance, to encourage underperforming kids to stay in school, the Rio city government issued a no-fail policy for elementary school. But as the lagging students advanced, the result was 28,000 illiterate fourth, fifth and sixth graders, Constin said.
Part of the problem is generational. Universal public education is so new that many families have little notion of its value while illiterate parents, who never went to school, may find it impossible to help their kids with homework, Schwartzman says.
This will likely change with time. But for now, Brazil continues to rank near the bottom of international student surveys.
In 2010, for example, students from 65 nations took part in the Program for International Student Assessment. Brazilian students ranked 53rd in reading and science and 57th in math.
All of this has hastened the ongoing flight of tax-paying middle and upper class families to private schools and produced a vicious circle because their exodus has reduced the pressure on elected officials to improve public education. By contrast, impoverished Brazilians pay no income taxes and that makes them less likely to hold officials accountable for decrepit public schools, Schwartzman said.
“Education is supposed to provide equal opportunities for all,” Costin says. “But this concept is turning into a myth, a utopia.”
Brazil’s slow and frustrating effort to reduce inequality through education and other means stands as a cautionary tale for the United States. As Castañeda points out, “Once inequality becomes entrenched, reversing it becomes incredibly difficult.”
And if its middle class withers, what might the United States look like? The answer, Castañeda says, is “what Latin America used to be, and in some ways still struggles to stop being.”
Back at the Colegio Teresiano, Brazilian journalist Patricia Lopes momentarily draws a blank when asked what she’d do if she lacked the wherewithal to send Clara, her freckle-faced six-year-old, to this private Roman Catholic school. Rather than risk sending Clara to a public school, Lopes finally replies, her family would likely leave the country.
“I look at my child and I know she will have a good future. She will be able to go to college and maybe become a doctor or a lawyer,” Lopes said. “But most kids in Brazil are badly educated and have no future. I feel bad about that.”