GUILLERMO ROSENWURCEL, an Argentine economist, went to public schools, from nursery school through university. But his daughter, age three, is starting out at a private nursery and is likely to get a private education to the end. ``This causes me a great deal of pain,'' he says, ``not only because of the cost, but because of the social fragmentation and segmentation this implies. Ninety-five percent of my generation studied in public schools.''
Until recently, Argentina's wealthy natural resources financed a European-style school system. Even today, its 94 percent literacy rate ties with Chile and Uruguay for first place in South America.
But the country's unstable economic situation began to undermine education in the 1970s. Says Enrique Bulit Goni, undersecretary for education, ``Over time, the Argentine state became absorbed with many other things and concern for education fell off.... It's a problem of financing. There are more students to educate and there is more knowledge to transmit, which provokes a permanent financial crisis.''
Bad schools are nothing new in Latin America, where strapped government finances and skewed priorities have kept most of the population out of the classroom. In Brazil, where more of the population is poor and their poverty is greater than in Argentina, 18 percent of those over age 10 are illiterate.
As recently as 1980, Argentina spent 5 to 6 percent of its $70 billion gross national product on education. Today, school spending is only 2.7 percent of GNP. In 1989, the federal education budget was $1.3 billion, or half the debt of the country's problematic state-owned companies. Less money has translated into fewer teachers, classrooms, and chalk.
Our Lady of Mercy is a public school founded in the 1920s, today just a few blocks away from a Buenos Aires shantytown, or villa miseria. Many of the students come from families that moved from the countryside to the slum, looking for jobs in the city.
Just after 4 on a warm spring afternoon, the children of the day's second shift are noisily piling out, making way for the nighttime high school. A tour of the cramped premises finds a bathroom full of books, because the night school needs the space where the library should be. The kitchen, janitor's house, and parts of hallways have been turned into classrooms, and there's no heat and no phone.
Pulling a couple of crude chairs out of a classroom and into his office, social worker Juan Carlos Torres comments that teachers snatch chairs from each other, so all their students - sometimes as many as 38 - can sit down.
``This school isn't as bad as those on the outskirts of San Miguel,'' he says, going on to relate nevertheless that 10 percent don't finish elementary school, 70 percent don't go on to high school, and 90 percent have difficulty reading and writing. The school has 1,200 primary students and gets a government-funded snack for only 300, when twice that number are hungry for one. ``They fall asleep out of weakness,'' says Mr. Torres. ``They come without eating. [The school] is such a monster that it's unmanageable.''
Years of official neglect have also led to poor use of now-scant funds. ``For each three teachers, we have one administrative employee, and in universities, [the ratio is] 2 to 1,'' says Mr. Bulit Goni. ``There's too much bureaucracy. Ninety-two percent of the educational budget is salaries and they are very low.''
Government officials are drawing up an administrative reform plan that targets the education and justice ministry first. During the first year of the reform, says an official working on the program, 120,000 public servants are to be laid off, many of whom are education office workers or teachers past retirement age.
The specific plan to revamp the educational system itself, however, does not include a budget increase. Set to begin in 1991, the plan would reduce waste and transform the Argentine school system, with local provinces taking on bigger budget and curriculum responsibilities.
``Some people live in 40-degree [centigrade, 104 F.] heat, and some live in Ushuaia [Tierra del Fuego, at the country's southernmost tip], with nine months without sun, and they all have to cover the same material every day, using manuals that haven't changed for 30 years,'' says Enrique Morad, author of an education study for the Union for a New Majority Study Center, a think tank.
This and other studies have found that private schools spend less than the $800 a year Argentina's 21,473 federally funded schools spend on each student and provide a better education.
The teachers' union opposes the government's plans, claiming decentralization won't work in poorer provinces. Under the present system, they point out, local communities already supplement federal funding by way of parents' associations that raise funds to buy missing items.
Decentralization, says Juan Carreno, press secretary of the Argentine educational workers federation, ``means privatizing education. As communities fall short of the task, companies will spring up to do the job, and then will want to interfere in education policy.'' The federation proposes instead that a federal education fund be set up, using taxes on corporate assets, profits, bank debts, income, and foreign exchange transactions.
Despite the opposition, the government expects to move ahead on the reforms soon. Argentina's President Carlos Sa'ul Menem is known for his tough dealings with unions, which have been playing a much weakened role in policymaking. ``We are at a point of imminent change,'' says Mr. Morad. ``The problem has been diagnosed and needs only the political will to implement [reforms]. There wasn't the will before because of other priorities, but this is changing.''