Mr. Ortega decreed education free for all, deployed a nationwide literacy campaign, and valiantly declared a “battle for sixth grade” – an important goal in a country that has one of the highest dropout rates and lowest high-school enrollments in the world.
But when it comes to paying the bill for education, the government hasn’t followed through, analysts say, and as a result education is not improving. Not only are textbooks and classrooms outdated, but standards for college admissions are falling and educators are amongst the most underpaid professionals in the country. And the low wages promised to teachers, some say, is telling of the government's true commitment to improving education.
“The glass ceiling for the quality of education is the quality of teachers. And there is no way to attract better and more qualified teachers to the profession if people can earn twice as much doing just about any other job,” says Adolfo Acevedo, an economist with the Civil Coordinator public policy and activist group.
National salaries 'biased against teachers'
“The national salary structure’s bias against teachers is overwhelming,” Mr. Acevedo says.
Not only are Nicaraguan teachers the worst paid in Central America, but they’re also among the worst paid professionals in Nicaragua. In real wage terms, an average public school teacher in Nicaragua earns less than 60 percent of the average wages for other jobs, and only half of what it costs to provide the canasta basica, a list of 56 basic food and household items needed to support an average family.
Teachers in Nicaragua earn less than miners, factory workers, construction workers, and government functionaries who stand in traffic rotundas waving Sandinista flags at passing cars, according to a comparative study on real purchasing power, Acevedo says. Most teachers earn only half as much as a market vendor.
“The average teacher is either living in poverty or right on the verge,” Sandinista analyst Oscar Rene Vargas says.
Teachers in Nicaragua earn around $185 to $226 a month, according to estimates by Acevedo and José Antonio Zepeda, president of the National Confederation of Nicaraguan Education Workers (ANDEN).
“Despite the continuous salary increases over the past six years – representing a total of 140 percent in wage increases – teachers still don’t earn enough to meet the costs of the canasta basica,” Zepeda said.
This is because any salary increase on paper has been virtually cancelled out by inflation and the increases to costs of living, says Acevedo.
“The salary increase projected for teachers in 2012 is 9 percent, but inflation is projected to be 7.95 percent,” he says. If projections are correct, the real increase in teacher salaries will be 1.05 percent. “At that rate of growth, teachers will need to wait 65 years for their salaries to catch up with the average national salary,” Acevedo says.
Actions speaking louder than words
“The deficit in education spending is not a problem that started with this government, but this government has not changed the tendency of underfunding,” says Mr. Vargas. “The situation is stagnant.”
Though the Ortega administration has lobbied the World Bank and EU for outside financing to support its education strategy – a plan Sandinista officials have quietly presented to international donors but kept guarded from any public scrutiny – the government is hesitant when it comes to opening its own purse strings to pay teachers’ salaries, says Mr. Acevedo.
Ortega, who receives nearly $500 million a year in Venezuelan aid, recently thanked teachers for their “vocation for service.” But despite his thanks, critics say the Ortega government once again did not do enough to address low salaries for educators in the 2012 budget, which was hurried through National Assembly earlier this month by the Sandinista supermajority.
The Ministry of Education’s (MINED) department of public relations said they weren’t authorized to give out information about teachers’ salaries, and also ignored written requests for information.
But some say the problem isn’t lack of funding, but how government money is spent.
For example, in the 2012 budget the government earmarked $111 million – double what it spent last year – on paying down the internal debt. At the same time, this year’s budget will increase education spending by $20 million, which means in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), education spending will be the same as it was last year: 3.7 percent.
That’s only half of what the country should be spending on education, Acevedo says. “The country needs to establish its priorities.”
Poor quality of education
Nicaragua’s cash-strapped school system is amongst the world’s lowest in terms of secondary-school enrollment: Only 45 percent of students who enter primary school go on to high school.
Many of those who do make it to high school may not be learning much more than those who drop out, though. The country’s high schools only have enough books to cover 55 percent of the students, something the Ministry of Education blames on a lack of the estimated $6 million needed to print new texts. The ministry hopes the funding will become available by the end of the year.
Those who do attend high school are not held to education standards or international benchmarks. The country performed so poorly in worldwide standardized testing that it stopped participating in global testing several years ago.
And according to recent university entrance exams, only 10 percent of students pass the basic math requirements, and 20 percent pass the Spanish-language requirement. Scores were so low that the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León last year lowered the passing grade on its entrance exam to 54 out of 100. But even then, only 68 percent of the high school graduates passed.
“There is a lot of government propaganda about education, but the quality of education in Nicaragua still leaves a lot to be desired,” says Carlos Tünnermann, the first Sandinista government’s minister of education and a former member of the UNESCO Director-General’s Advisory Group for Higher Education in Latin America.
A version of this article first appeared on the author's website, Nicaragua Dispatch.