Bolivian children - and educators - feel the pinch of economic hardship. Teachers regret striking for more pay, but see no way out

Bolivia's Marxist-dominated public teacher unions and its free-market-oriented government are headed for a showdown over low teacher salaries and a growing movement toward private education. The teachers' unions are threatening a national strike today unless the government triples salaries, which range from $40 to $80 a month.

Since he took office in August 1985, President V'ictor Paz Estenssoro has reduced government funding for education from 33 to 21 percent. This move is part of the government's free-market economic program to reverse years of economic decline. The government has cut inflation from 24,000 percent to 20 percent.

Mr. Paz is reducing the government's role not only in education but in health care as well, and he has dismantled the vital state tin-mining company.

Government officials say a market-based economy is the only hope for promoting growth. They promise more money for public education when the economy expands.

``If you don't have economic activity, you don't have tax income,'' said Education Minister Enrique Ipina. ``And [without] tax income, you don't have money for education.''

Mr. Ipina said he sympathizes with the teachers' demands, but that the cash-strapped government doesn't have the money.

Despite the ideological clash, the two sides agree on one thing: their hopes of using public education as a way to improve living standards in South America's poorest and most backward country are but a dream for the present.

``Children are the innocent victim of the problems,'' Ipina said, noting the strikes, the students' lack of school supplies, and the inability to attract and retain quality teachers.

Teachers' salaries have declined to 20 percent of their 1980 value in real terms. And the government has delayed wage payments every month this year. Since 1985, the teachers have responded by holding separate strikes in different part of the country until the government paid them.

According to most Bolivians, the public education system has never been anything to boast about. A majority of the population consists of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking Indians who live in rural areas. But the government has traditionally given money for education in the three largest cities: La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba.

As a result, 50 percent of Bolivia's citizens in rural areas cannot read or write, and nationally, 33 percent are illiterate. Only 53 of 100 schoolchildren nationwide reach the fourth grade; 10 graduate from high school; one earns a university degree. According to a 1984 Ministry of Education report, the large number of students leaving school early indicates that the public education system is not doing a good job.

With more than 100 days of strikes in 1986, and about 50 this year, thousands of parents have responded by enrolling their children in private schools. One-third of Bolivia's 2.5 million schoolchildren attend private schools, compared to about 20 percent 10 years ago. Private schools cost between $25 and $50 a month per student.

La Paz resident Ana Mar'ia Ram'irez spends $27 per month for each of her two children to attend a private school, because the public schools are always on strike. ``My kids weren't learning anything there.'' She earns $150 a month. The minimum monthly wage is $25.

Teachers lament the damage their strikes have on public education but say the low salaries leave them no alternative. ``The Constitution says education is the primary responsibility of the government, but Paz is deliberately trying to destroy public education,'' said Ren'e Pardo, a La Paz grade school teacher who also serves on the board of the Trotskyite-dominated La Paz Teachers' Federation. ``The government is trying to make education accessible only to the ruling class in order to preserve its dominant role.''

Thousands of teachers have abandoned the profession or have switched to private schools, where salaries are twice as high and students have books and materials.

Mr. Pardo has decided to continue teaching in public schools but has taken a second job as a printer to supplement his $50 per month teacher salary. He continues to teach because he loves it. Others have taken jobs in the underground economy. During school vacations, dozens of La Paz teachers take the train to the Bolivian-Chilean border. There, they buy Chilean cheese, canned goods, and cosmetics to sell back in Bolivia's capital.

``If I didn't do this, my three children and I would starve,'' said Gladys Av'iles. She makes $80 a month teaching and $80 a month with contraband profits.

The Urban Teachers' Confederation, with 47,000 members, is demanding a monthly salary of $300, the minimum cost for a family of five living in urban areas; the 26,000-member Rural Teachers' Confederation, a monthly wage of $267. ``If the government doesn't respond favorably, we'll march and block roads,'' says Sergio Gallardo, head of the rural teachers' union.

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