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Costa Rica, a pioneer of public education

Article - September 13, 2011
The Central American state was one of the first in the world to make schooling compulsory and free
Nothing is more important to a person’s economic well-being than his or her education. Few countries in the world take this fundamental truth as seriously as Costa Rica. In 1949 the army was disbanded, and much of the money and other resources saved by this unusual measure has been spent instead on education.

That investment hasn’t just gone towards teaching the three ‘R’s’, either. Over the years, government after government has made sure that arts and other cultural programs are also amply funded, in keeping with the philosophy that people need a well rounded education to be happy, creative, and productive.

“What we are trying to do in Costa Rica is to reach a balance between what you would call economic dynamism, an economy that grows sufficiently, having good human development and having social cohesion,” says Leonardo Garnier Rimolo, Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Education.

In 1869 Costa Rica became one of the first countries in the world to make education compulsory and free, and the focus on education has produced the most literate population in Central America, with 96% of the adult population able to read.

The public school system was originally funded from the state’s share of the country’s earnings from the sale of coffee. When compulsory education was first introduced, only about one-tenth of Costa Rica’s population could read. Forty years later that figure had reached one-half and by the 1970’s almost 90% of the population was literate.

Now, the entire population has access to the primary school system. Access to secondary education still hasn’t reached the entire country, but that is one of the ministry’s most important objectives, according to the Minister.

LEONARDO GARNIER RIMOLO,  Minister of Public Education

“When you look at statistics, the kind of income a young person gets once he or she goes to the labor market is directly related their education,” he explains. “Only those who have at least a high school education get knowledge-based jobs, which are better paid. One of our biggest goals is for every student to complete high school,” says Mr. Garnier.

A program called Avancemos, which means ‘We move forward’ in Spanish, has been started to help keep kids from poorer families in school. Some families need the extra money that a working teenager can bring in, so Avancemos pays a subsidy to those families to let their children keep studying.

“If the kid is working and getting some money for the family then that makes a difference,” Mr. Garnier says. “Some families have traditionally opted for their kids to leave school and work to earn money. The idea of Avancemos was to compensate for that problem. About 40% of the students get that subsidy so they won’t have to work and the condition is they remain in high school.”

Students receive a subsidy based on a calculation of what a student might make if they were employed, and statistics show that the number of students working and not studying has declined, and the number studying and not working has risen, a strong sign that the program is helping keep kids in school.

Providing knowledge and skills that will make them more valuable to employers is of course one of the most important missions for the country’s schools, but the educational system in Costa Rica is intended to impart other valuable lessons to its students as well.

“Civic education and how to live together in a complex world teaches students not just to tolerate differences but to enjoy differences,” says Mr. Garnier. “Since I arrived, we have been changing the concept of the word tolerance. We should not try to tolerate differences but rather to enjoy them, to enjoy each other.”

 Children are also learning to appreciate their country’s rich environmental diversity, in a way that helps promote responsible tourism that will preserve the eco-system for the benefit of future generations.

The country’s commitment to education is strong and plans to increase that commitment are currently under way. Costa Rica’s constitution requires that spending on education be at least 6% of gross domestic product every year.

In 2010 the budget for education spending reached 7.2% of GDP, and an amendment to the constitution is under consideration that would raise the minimum requirement to 8%.

Ultimately, the government’s goal is to promote economic growth and new job creation to make sure that all Costa Ricans can grow up and improve their lives through a better education.

“You have to work hard to put an emphasis on reducing inequalities,” the Minister says. “Having a good relationship with nature is also important. If you can have economic dynamism, social cohesion and environmental sustainability then you become a nice place to live. What we would like to tell the world is that it is possible to have all three here in Costa Rica. It is not easy but it is possible.”