Poorly paid instructors and many missed days of school are marring public education in Argentina, diminishing the standing the country once enjoyed in education. Rural schools face especially big problems.
Leo is not doing well. The 16-year-old is nervous, has sweaty palms and a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He sits together and waits with a few classmates in a long hallway of his high school in the small town of San Pedro within the Santa Fe province. The students are waiting for their exams to begin - tests that will determine whether Leo will finally be able to make it to the next grade.
The examination is set to begin at 7:00, but at 7:30, the students are still waiting. A half hour passes before an administrator comes by to tell the young people that they can go home. There is no examination today because the teachers are striking - again.
During the summer break, the teachers' union entered negotiations with the regional government and the Education Department in order to obtain a raise - but the union came back empty-handed. When the new school year began, around students million students stood in front of closed classroom doors.
A 'complicated' situation
Luis Mesyngier sits in his office with a tortured smile on his face. The head of the upper grades at the renowned Pestalozzi School in the capital of Buenos Aires has just one word for the educational situation in his country: complicated. And he is not referring just to the tricky organizational structure or the confusing distribution of administrative responsibilities, which includes the fact that at some private schools the state pays the teachers' salaries.
Rather, Mesyngier is referring to a subtle process that has been going on for decades, burrowing deeper into the Argentinean school system. The cleft between state and private schools keeps growing larger.
In Argentina, students are required to go to school for 13 years, starting at age five, and the state is obliged to provide nationwide uniform structures that ensure equal access and financing. But the reality looks much different. Until the 1970s, no other Latin American country spent as much money on education as Argentina. At the time, schools also served as melting pots with the children of blue-collar workers learning alongside professionals' kids.
Today's government spends less on education, despite its promises, which is particularly evident in public schools. They have smaller budgets and are poorly equipped when compared with private institutions. Vacant faculty positions often go unfilled, and the teachers earn much less - an important point, notes Luis Mesyngier, because along with falling wages the teaching profession also sinks in the eyes of parents and students. They are quicker to show disrespect to poorly paid educators.
Particular difficulties in rural areas
The consequences are clear: Constant strikes, vacant positions and an incredibly high sick rate among the staff lead to around 30 days of school per year being cancelled. The last worldwide PISA test, in which 65 nations took part, placed Argentina 58th - the country has long since lost its title as an educational leader in Latin America.
Experts and parents complain about the catastrophic situation when it comes to learning foreign languages, which is now a decisive factor in later securing employment in Argentina.
The situation is even more difficult in rural areas. Thousands of kilometers from the capital, where the state's attempts at promoting education have little impact, the concept of mandatory schooling remains rather foreign. Many children spend their days among goat herds rather than in the classroom.
Those who can afford to are pulling the emergency break. Leo's parents registered their son for the new school year at a technical high school in Buenos Aires. It has an excellent reputation - in part because its graduates can often land a job at one of the major German car manufacturers located in the country.
Author: Marc Koch / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen
Mark Koch led DW's Latin American Department for two and a half years before becoming the head of DW's new headquarters in Buenos Aires in January, 2012.