Record debt has blunted Costa Rican literacy gains

"Without education for its young," says former Costa Rican President Jose Figueres Ferrer, "no nation can be truly successful -- nor can a government feel satisfied that it has achieved its goals."

As he reminisces about his several presidencies, it is obvious that Mr. Figueres has a sense of satisfaction about his achievements in this area. His presidencies in the 1950s and 1960s were periods of great progress not only in cutting illiteracy in Costa Rica, but also in providing the classrooms for the nation's youth to acquire an education.

By any standard, that progress is impressive.Measured against the record of other Latin American nations, Costa Rica clearly emerges at the top of the list in both eliminating illiteracy and providing educational opportunities for its young.

By 1976, for example, only 7 percent of the population were classified as illiterate -- a tally that no other Central American nation could come close to matching.

Moreover, since the early 1960s, virtually all Costa Rican six-year-olds have been entering the first grade. That too, is an achievement unmatched by all but a handful of Latin American countries. Indeed, Costa Rica was quicker to provide these classrooms for its young than did even Cuba, which has long boasted of its own considerable achievements in this field.

But now, this Costa Rican success story is showing signs of wear and tear. Rapid population growth is the culprit. The population surge, running about 3 percent a year during the 1960s and 1970s, is sorely taxing the country's educational facilities. As early as the 1960s, the nation's population growth led to classroom overcrowding and to what one Costa Rican education official now admits "is a less than adequate educational plant."

That's bad enough, but there has actually been a decline in the percentages of those students who go on to finish a high school education.

The statistics tell something of the problem: While 17 percent of first grade entrants in 1965 went on to complete high school, a much smaller percentage -- estimated at 8 percent -- do so today. An even smaller group enters university today.

"We obviously have something of a dropout problem," says the education official in what he himself admitted was a bit of an "understatement." He agreed to answer questions only if his name was not used, worrying that he could lose his job. "Look at the statistics. While 95 percent of all Costa Rican young enter the first grade, only 42 percent are now completing the fourth grade, only 25 percent the sixth grade.

"What we have achieved in slashing illiteracy and in providing education for our young is nothing short of monumental. But we have failed to build on this achievement -- or event to sustain it."

This education official, who has an important but not a decisionmaking role in the Ministry of Education, is supported in his conclusions by many other educators here -- none of whom, however, want to be quoted directly on the issue that is beginning to shape up as something of a national scandal.

"Part of the dropout problem," says one of the educators, "is that classrooms are generally overcrowded and teachers are often worn thin by having to cope with more students than they can handle. There is little incentive for either teacher or student in situations like this."

Another says: "Not until we do something about population growth are we going to make headway in meeting this challenge. There are too many families, particularly in the countryside, having a child every year until they are a family of 12 children. That is not uncommon in the northern part of the country -- and even here in San Jose, too."

Population growth does, however, seem to be easing a bit. Recent statistics suggest that Costa Rica's annual population increase is about 2.6 percent for the early 1980s.

More schools are clearly needed, as are more teachers. Yet the national budget can't stretch to include them, for this is a moment when Costa Rica is in deep financial distress. Its $3 billion foreign debt is small by comparison with that of Argentina, Brazil, or Mexico -- but given Costa Rica's small total population, 2.3 million people, Costa Rica has the highest per capita foreign debt in the world.

There simply isn't the money for large additional expenditures for education. "It is a case of making do with what we have," says one teacher who adds: "It is a bit like the classic example of putting your fingers in the holes in the dike, but finding there are more holes than fingers."

Former President Figueres recognizes this, adding: "More than all other problems, educational deficiency and illiteracy is the one that holds all of Latin America back.

"Perhaps we shall call a moratorium on all other problems to tackle this one."

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