Venezuelan opposition activists allege that the new Education Law, which the National Assembly passed unanimously shortly after midnight on August 14th following an extended legislative session, is unconstitutional, anti-democratic, politicizes the classroom, threatens the family and religion, and will allow the state to take children away from their parents for indoctrination. Are they correct?
In defense of the law, Education Minister Hector Navarro told several national media outlets that the opposition’s claims are not only incorrect, they "form part of a campaign that seeks to generate fear in the population so they will be against the [Education] Law."
Before and after the law’s passage, demonstrations both for and against the law turned into violent confrontations in which tear gas and other objects were thrown, journalists were attacked, and the police were deployed to maintain the public order. Opponents of the law, mainly adversaries of the government of President Hugo Chavez, vowed to sabotage the law’s implementation with acts of disobedience in schools, and others announced they would challenge the law in the courts. Proponents of the law, mainly Chavez supporters, formed organizations to assure the law is applied.
To understand the ongoing controversy, it is helpful to carefully examine the following three questions: What are the fundamental tenets of the new Education Law? What are the main critiques of the law, and are they correct? And, what are the major challenges facing the Venezuelan educational system now that the law has been passed?
The official title of the law is, "Organic Education Law," meaning it has the highest legal stature under the constitution and is required by the constitution to uphold constitutional principles.
At the law’s foundation is the concept that the state has the responsibility to ensure that all citizens have a high quality education, free of charge, from childhood through the undergraduate university level. This concept of the "Educator State" (Estado Docente) is introduced in Article 5, which says the state must guarantee education "as a universal human right and a fundamental, inalienable, non-renounceable social duty, and a public service… governed by the principles of integrality, cooperation, solidarity, attentiveness, and co-responsibility." The law also requires "progressive annual growth" in education spending as a percentage of GDP.
Article 6 lists nearly fifty aspects of the education system of which the state is in charge, including educational infrastructure, curriculum, and other administrative tasks, as well as specific duties that exemplify the principles of the education system established in Article 3. One of these principles is, "equality among all citizens without discrimination of any kind." The law mandates "equality of conditions and opportunities," as well as "gender equity," "access to the educational system for people with disabilities or educational needs," and the extension of educational facilities to rural and poor areas. Further, it states that Spanish will be the official language of the education system, "except in the instances of intercultural bilingual indigenous education, in which the official and equal use of their [native] language and Spanish shall be guaranteed." In addition to promoting "the exchange of social and artistic knowledge, theories, practices, and experiences," the law sanctions "popular and ancestral knowledge, which strengthen the identity of our Latin American,
Another principle that is established in Article 3 and is recurrent throughout the law is "participatory democracy," particularly the transition from representative democracy to participatory democracy. Article 15 says that one of the basic purposes of education is "to develop a new political culture based on protagonist participation and the strengthening of popular power, the democratization of knowledge, and the promotion of the school as a space for the formation of citizenship and community participation, for the reconstruction of the public spirit." The rest of the law is rife with references to the importance of "learning to peacefully coexist," learning to learn and teach simultaneously, "valuing the common good," the necessity for education to be "integral" as opposed to rigidly specialized or one-tracked, "respect for diversity," and the importance of life-long learning.
Moreover, the law expands the legal definition of the educational community to include families, community organizations, and wage laborers in addition to the formal educational workers. Article 20 states, "The educational community will be composed of all the fathers, mothers, representatives, students, teachers, administrative workers, and laborers of the educational institution… spokespersons of the different community organizations linked to the educational centers and institutions will also be able to form part of the educational community." The article describes this new educational community as "a democratic space of social-communitarian, organized, participatory, cooperative, protagonist, and solidarity-oriented character," and specifies, "Its participants will carry out the process of citizen education consistent with what is established in the Constitution of the
With regard to public universities, the law maintains the same basic structure that currently exists, in which some public universities are run by the state and others, known as autonomous universities, are funded by the state but run independently. But the law modifies the way autonomous universities are administered in order to rectify structural problems that are widely known to exist within them, mainly corruption by university administrators and the lack of transparency and democracy in budgeting decisions. Many autonomous universities have blatantly aided violent opposition groups by allowing violent demonstrators to store weapons, tires, and other protest materials and take refuge on university campuses, the boundaries of which state security forces are legally prohibited from crossing.
To correct these problems, Article 34 of the law stipulates, "The principle of autonomy will be exercised with respect to the rights of citizens consecrated in the Constitution." It also states that autonomous universities must "elect and choose their authorities on the basis of participatory, protagonist democracy with revocable mandates, assuring equal conditions for the full exercise of the political rights of the members of the university community: Professors, students, administrative personnel, laborers, and graduates." The article adds, "An anti-corruption council composed of members of the university community will be elected."
Another problem the law aims to correct is unequal access to the university system. It is evident that people of greater economic means disproportionately occupy the limited slots in
Labor rights, particularly job security and benefits, are another recurring principle throughout the law. Labor protections are guaranteed not only for teachers and educational administrators, but for all staff including laborers who perform tasks not usually considered to be part of the educational process, such as cleaning and cooking. All workers are said to have the right to, and all students are supposed to be trained for, "liberatory work." Article 15 states that the educational system must "develop the creative potential of each human being for the full realization of his or her personality and citizenship, based on the ethical value of liberatory work and active participation."
Finally, "respect for human rights" is established in Article 3 as a fundamental value of the education system, and speech or actions that threaten human rights are prohibited in Article 10. Human rights are also defended in Articles 6, 14, 15, and 33.
In addition to the main principles of the new Organic Education Law mentioned above, the law also says education should encourage an end to nuclear weapons in the world, fighting racism, and, in Article 15, "impelling the formation of an ecological consciousness in order to preserve biodiversity and social diversity."
For several months, powerful opposition groups, including the association of rectors of
Criticism #1: Politics in the Classroom
Opposition voices far and wide have claimed that the new Education Law will politicize the classroom and impose what one columnist in the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal called a "totalitarian vision of education" that will turn public schools into mouthpieces for party-line socialism.
During a town hall meeting organized by the Chamber of Private Education, lawyer Maria Curiel admitted that the law does not contain the word "socialist," but pointed out that the law does refer to the government’s National Development Plan, which currently advocates concepts such as a "socialist ethic" and "revolutionary protagonist democracy." Indeed, one of the state’s responsibilities listed in Article 6 of the law is "the productive insertion of university graduates in correspondence with the priorities of the Social and Economic Development Plan of the Nation."
Curiel went on to assert the state should not have such a strong role in education. "What’s more, it’s the state that exercises the management. Is this what we want in our schools?" the lawyer asked rhetorically.
Other critics say that the politicization of the classroom is enshrined in the law’s expansion of the educational community. They fear that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), of which Chavez is president, and local governing bodies known as community councils, which receive national funding to solve community problems at the local level, will invade schools and practice Big Brother-like surveillance of the educational system. "It is unacceptable that they intend to displace educational communities for this socio-political experiment," railed one El Universal editorial.
The only article in the law which mentions the role of the community councils in the educational system is Article 18, which states:
The community councils, indigenous communities, and other social organizations of the community, in their condition as educational agents and in the function of popular power, are obligated to contribute to the integral formation of citizens, the formation and strengthening of their ethical values, the information and dissemination of the historical, geographic, cultural, environmental, conservationist, and socio-economic reality of the local community, the integration of the family, the school, and the community, the promotion and defense of education, culture, sports, recreation, work, health, and the rest of the rights, guarantees, and duties of Venezuelans, assuming a liberatory pedagogical role in the formation of a new citizenry with social responsibility.
It remains to be seen exactly how the participation of community councils in the educational system will take form based on this article. One university student who demonstrated in favor of the law last week explained it like this: "The community councils will not give classes, as the private media has made it seem, they will only integrate themselves into the educational development of youth in their communities… this will allow the students to be concerned about their surroundings, that is, they will be knowledgeable about the conflicts in their communities and offer ideas for their solution."
It is important to note that many opposition leaders frame the community councils as the sticky tentacles of an overbearing state that wants to assert authoritarian control over local affairs. While it is true that no previous government so actively promoted local community organizing, it is also true that, despite being publicly funded, the community councils function for the most part independently and are not forced to advocate a party line or ideology. Moreover, while Chavez supporters have formed community councils much more enthusiastically than opposition sympathizers, many community councils are composed primarily or at least partially of opposition sympathizers.
Also, it is important to highlight the section of the law titled, "Prohibitions of Political Party Propaganda in
It is not surprising that a law that advocates participatory democracy and involves community councils in the education system has garnered criticism from people who see this as the politicization of education. However, the perspective of many proponents of the law is that previous education laws, which did not advocate participatory democracy and the other values established in the new law, were no less political. National Assembly Legislator Carlos Escarrá, a constitutional lawyer, said the new law aims to reverse the politicization of the classroom waged by the "Fourth Republic," or the succession of representative democratic governments in the four decades prior to Chavez’s election in 1998. "Ideologizing was what they did during the
Criticism #2: Custody of Children
Many media outlets, particularly a string of radio stations during the month of June, spread the false rumor that the new law would permit the state to take arbitrary custody of children between the ages of three and twenty. These radio stations recited false versions of Articles 3 and 4 of the law, alleging that the children would be placed in state-run "children’s circles" and indoctrinated with "civic and mental training" and "Cuban values." The allegations grabbed significant national attention, and the education minister went on national television repeatedly to deny the accusations. He even read the actual Articles 3 and 4 of the law proposal at the time to prove the falsity of the claims. The final text of the law says nothing that could even remotely be associated with or interpreted as validating the claims.
Criticism #3: Not Enough Public Discussion
Many opponents of the law claim that the discussion of the law was not long or inclusive enough. They emphasize that the second draft of the law, which was significantly different than the first, was made public just one week before the National Assembly initiated its second and final round of discussions of the law and then passed the final version hours later. They say the process by which the law was passed was unconstitutional.
The rector of the National Polytechnic Experimental University (UNEXPO) and president of the University Rectors Association, Rita Añez, told the press last week, "The law proposal as it has been conceived, behind the backs of the educational community and the country, is unconstitutional."
Also last week, the University Council at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) along with other university groups and the opposition parties Un Nuevo Tiempo, Primero Justicia, Bandera Roja, COPEI, and Acción Democrática publicly called for the discussion of the law to be deferred until the academic year begins in September in order to carry out a nation-wide consultation with educational personnel.
In response to this critique, proponents of the law point out that the National Assembly passed the first draft of the law in August 2001. On and off over the past eight years, legislators hosted what are known as "street parliament" sessions, which are like town hall meetings or public discussions of the law’s content with teachers unions, student organizations, political parties, regional and local government officials, and other educational and civil society groups. Also, over the past month, opponents and proponents of the law, including student groups, educational organizations, and political parties marched to the National Assembly to turn in their proposals and objections, and were frequently invited to meet with legislators. On August 16th, the full text of the law proposal was published in several national daily newspapers.
It is important to point out that since the vast majority of National Assembly Legislators are supporters of the Chavez government, most of the town hall meetings were organized and hosted by Chavez supporters. But we must also consider the reason that the National Assembly is so dominated by supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution: Most opposition candidates, facing sure defeat in the face of Chavez’s enormous popularity, chose to boycott the 2005 National Assembly elections.
Without a doubt, the Education Law proposal was widely distributed, and its contents were broadly discussed over a long period of time. However, it is true that the eight years over which the revisions to the first draft of the law were carried out was a much longer period of time than the week or so that the second draft of the law was discussed before being put to a vote. But the section of the constitution which governs the passage of laws (Articles 202 – 218) does not indicate this to be a problem, so it seems the opposition’s claim that the law’s passage was unconstitutional is unfounded.
Perhaps some Chavistas have questioned whether the passage of the law was consistent with the Chavez administration’s stated ideal of participatory democracy, but this does not seem to be the case given the wealth of evidence to the contrary.
Criticism #4: University Autonomy Violated
Critics of the law say the regulations it places on
First, the editorial says that Article 34 of the law (cited above), which says university officials must be elected by the entire university community under equal voting conditions, is a form of "populist politicking" (populismo politiquero). The editorial appears to defend the current system of internal university elections, in which top posts are elected by a small group of university administrators, and in the elections in which students and professors are allowed to vote, there is a sliding scale in which students count for one vote, and higher level personnel count for more votes, while laborers remain excluded. The law recognizes the current system as a problem that must be corrected by instilling democracy in university budgeting.
Second, the editorial interprets a section of Article 34 to mean that the government will respect intellectual freedom only in the autonomous universities, implying that in there will not be intellectual freedom in the state-run public universities. The section of the article states: "In the applicable university educational institutions, the principle of autonomy recognized by the state will come to fruition through intellectual freedom."
This argument seems quite manipulative because it pretends the article’s purpose is to define which institutions will have intellectual freedom and which will not, when the evident purpose of the article is to guarantee intellectual freedom in autonomous universities. Moreover, Article 36 explicitly guarantees "academic freedom, understood to be the inalienable right to create, expound or apply methodological focuses and theoretical perspectives, in conformity with the principles established in the Constitution and the law" in all activities in the entire university system, not just the autonomous universities.
Third, the editorial cites a confusing part of Article 35, which says a special law may be created to govern "the supply of some degree programs that by their nature, reach, social impact, or national interest, should be reserved to be given in institutions especially oriented toward them." The lawmakers seem to think some degree programs need their own separate university institutions, but it is not clear which programs they have in mind, and the law does not specify any criteria by which to decide this. Does the article refer to the training of police, perhaps? The Ministry for Internal Affairs and Justice recently convoked a commission of public university officials to lay out plans for a special police university, so this is a possibility. Does the article permit the national government to arbitrarily restrict any degree program that an autonomous university may wish to offer? If so, it would seem this violates the academic freedom granted in Articles 34 and 36. However, the article is too vague to really determine one way or the other at this point.
Overall, it seems that the opposition’s claim that the new law violates university autonomy is not very strong. The law upholds the principle that, in Minister Navarro’s words, "admission to the universities is a public good that pertains to the whole society and that cannot be administered for the benefit of the few." The law also mandates participatory budgeting and strong labor protections in the universities. These regulations may annoy the administrators of autonomous universities and cut into their budgets, but they do not constitute a violation of the principle of university autonomy.
Criticism #5: Families and Religion Threatened
Critics claim that the new Education Law threatens the sanctity of the family and the freedom of religion. Opponents of the law say it violates Article 75 of the Constitution, which says, "The state shall protect families as a natural association in society, and as the fundamental space for the overall development of persons," as well as Article 59 of the Constitution, which says, "Fathers and mothers are entitled to have their sons and daughters receive religious education in accordance with their convictions."
The main way the new law threatens religion, opponents say, is by not including a clause that existed in the previous law, which permitted the state to give funding to religious education institutions, as long as those institutions offer high quality education free of charge. Critics claim this measure threatens the viability of a very well known Catholic organization in
In response to these claims, the education minister offered a simple explanation of the intention of the new law: "Schools are not atheist now, they are secular like the state, like our Constitution establishes." Maria de Queipo, the president of the Education Commission in the National Assembly, clarified that "religious education in schools is not going to be prohibited, rather it will not be obligatory in the curriculum."
Perhaps the best way to judge whether the law threatens the freedom of religion is to read the main article addressing religious education, Article 7, in the section titled, "Secular Education":
The state will maintain its secular character in educational matters under all circumstances, preserving its independence with respect to all religious currents and organizations. Families have the right and the responsibility for the religious education of their children in accordance with their convictions and consistent with the freedom of religion and worship, envisaged in the Constitution of the Republic.
We must note that this article assures the "right and responsibility of families" to manage their children’s religious education without interference from the state. This seems to prove wrong the opposition’s claim that the law violates the constitutional articles mentioned above.
The new law also enshrines families as a fundamental part of the educational community, which was also mentioned previously. In the words of the education minister, "We believe the family is fundamental in the educational process, but we also believe we should accompany it. The teacher should be accompanied by the family in the educational process."
Minister Navarro’s words are illustrated in Article 17 of the new law, which establishes that "families, the school, society, and the state are co-responsible in the process of citizen education and the integral development of its members." This article also states, "Families have the duty, the right, and the responsibility for the orientation and formation of principles, values, beliefs, attitudes, and habits in children, adolescents, youth, and adults in order to cultivate respect, love, honesty, tolerance, reflection, participation, independence, and acceptance."
Thus, an honest reading of the articles contained in the Education Law reveals the wrongness of the claim that the law threatens religious education and the rights of the family.
The principal challenge facing
With regard to the first factor, the private education sector is the most actively opposed to the new law, according to El Universal. The president of
The president of the teachers union Fetramagisterio, Nelson Gonzalez, said acts of disobedience to the law would go into full force when classes start in September. "Among the teachers there is a mood of disobedience because of the way in which the law has been passed. We cannot reveal the tactics that will be used, but it is clear that we will come to an agreement in order to impede its application," said Gonzalez.
With regard to the second factor, some opponents of the law have articulated the difficulty facing teachers at this crossroads for Venezuelan education.
"By my judgment, the biggest problem with the law is that it is going to generate a great uncertainty among teachers because they will not know which norm to follow," said Pedro Garcia from the Simon Rodriguez Educators Movement earlier this week. Garcia added that this confusion is worsened by the fact that no special laws have been passed yet to spell out the specific rules and regulations based on the broad principles in the organic law.
Garcia has a point. What does it mean for education to be democratic, to be committed to national sovereignty and self-determination, to value indigenous peoples, and to guarantee gender equity? We must acknowledge that the democratic educational methods promoted in